Eric Betzig, Stefan W Hell and William E Moerner have been awarded the 2014 Nobel prize in chemistry for their discovery of nanoscopy to view objects at a scale once thought impossible.
The field of nanoscopy developed from the original misconception that microscopy, the study of small things, could only work for objects no smaller than 0.2 micrometres since anything smaller would be impossible to see because the resolution would be half the wavelength of light.
The first principle rewarded for the Nobel prize was for Hell’s research back in 2000, which paved the way for serious benefits to medicine and scientific research after he utilised two laser beams; one stimulating fluorescent molecules to glow while the other cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume.
Known as Abbe’s diffraction limit, the measurement of 0.2 micrometres or lower was once thought of as impossible to see
The second principle rewarded was for Betzig and Moerner’s work, which laid the groundwork for the second method, single-molecule microscopy, which relies upon the possibility to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off.
The modern applications for nanoscopy are some of the most important in scientific research today and include the ability see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain; track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases as they aggregate; and follow individual proteins in fertilised eggs as these divide into embryos.
Cells dividing image via Shutterstock