Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson (and another contest)

I’m not keeping track on who’s guessed correctly on the biology, physics, chemistry Nobel Prizes, but we may already have a winner. (If you were the first to guess at least one winner in two of those categories, let me know). As announced by many venues this morning, including the New York Times, this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went, not to those who developed the CRISPR/Cas9 system of gene editing, but to Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank of Columbia University in New York, and Richard Henderson of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, UK. Their award was for developing high-acuity methods for visualizing biomolecules.

The Swedish Academy of Science’s press release is here, and it’s a good place to see a summary of the research and some of the computer-processed images that have resulted from their cryogenic methods. (For a longer and more technical explanation, go here.) Here’s part of their summary, which explains the contributions of each of the three winners:

Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualise processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.

Electron microscopes were long believed to only be suitable for imaging dead matter, because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material. But in 1990, Richard Henderson succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. This breakthrough proved the technology’s potential.

Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope’s fuzzy twodimensional images are analysed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure.

Jacques Dubochet added water to electron microscopy. Liquid water evaporates in the electron microscope’s vacuum, which makes the biomolecules collapse. In the early 1980s, Dubochet succeeded in vitrifying water – he cooled water so rapidly that it solidified in its liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the biomolecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.

Following these discoveries, the electron microscope’s every nut and bolt have been optimised. The desired atomic resolution was reached in 2013, and researchers can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. In the past few years, scientific literature has been filled with images of everything from proteins that cause antibiotic resistance, to the surface of the Zika virus. Biochemistry is now facing an explosive development and is all set for an exciting future.

Here are two photos of how it’s done and how the images are analyzed, courtesy of the Swedish Academy site:

Here are images of three molecules visualized by the method:

(From Swedish Academy summary, as is the following picture): Over the last few years, researchers have published atomic structures of numerous complicated protein complexes. a. A protein complex that governs the circadian rhythm. b. A sensor of the type that reads pressure changes in the ear and allows us to hear. c. The Zika virus.

Here’s another molecule, glutamate dehydrogenase, in which the improvement of resolution by the new method can be seen:

Fig. 9. The resolution progression of cryo-EM, illustrated by a representation of glutamate dehydrogenase with an increasing level of detail from left to right. For a protein of this size, 334 kDa, the 1.8 Å resolution to the right (38) could only be achieved after 2012/13. After an image by V. Falconieri (see ref. 38). Illustration: © Martin Högbom, Stockholm University.

And the winners:

(from the NYT) From left, Dr. Dubochet, Dr. Frank and Dr. Henderson. Credit From left: University of Lausanne, Columbia University and Cambridge University, via European Pressphoto Agency

The Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced on Thursday in Sweden; the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Norway; and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science will be announced on Monday in Sweden. If you want to guess, go ahead. Here’s another offer: if you guess who gets the literature prize, I’ll send you an autographed copy of either of my trade books. You can’t be the other winner, and you get only one guess. (Don’t you think it’s time Salman Rushdie got the Prize? Or Richard Dawkins?)


  1. Mark R.
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    OK, I’m going to guess Richard Dawkins.

    Edward Snowden for Peace prize? He was on the short list last year.

  2. TJR
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    They should give the Peace prize to Donald Trump.

    That would win them the Turner prize.

  3. Lucia Paiz Medina
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ll say Ernesto Cardenal for literature, cause, why not? Also, I really want the autographed book. Would it be ship to Nicaragua?

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I ship prize books anywhere in the world.

      • Lucia Paiz Medina
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        Thanks!! I really like and enjoy reading you every day! I’ve been willing to send some Wildlife photos from Nicaragua, but even when I am a biologist, I am terrible with scientific names. I will consider landscapes

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I’d go with Phil Ochs for the Lit award, as a sequel to last year’s prize, but only those still among the quick are eligible to win.

    I’ll go out on a limb and say it’ll be someone from not-America.

  5. Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Don’t you think it’s time Salman Rushdie got the Prize? Or Richard Dawkins?

    Yes, but they’re not nearly brave enough to go for either.

  6. Jacques Hausser
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Big jackpots, terrorist attacks and Nobel prizes have something in common: you don’t expect them to happen to people close to you. It’s just something you read in the papers about people, famous or not, that you don’t know personnaly.
    I’m very happy for Jacques Dubochet, a colleague of me at Lausanne, a very good friend since 1968 and one of the nicest guys I know. Congrats, Jacques!

  7. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    This news was on the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 this evening. They had a short interview with Dr Henderson, who said he received the call from Sweden as he was doing a presentation at about 10 o’clock this morning. As he has no contacts in Sweden that he recognised, he clicked “reject” on his phone and carried on with the lecture! When they rang again he took the call outside the lecture theatre and got the good news.

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink


    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      Hi I’m dumb


      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        ^^^^ that means I didn’t click the button to subscribe- and only that… sort of…

  9. Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  10. Patrick Polan
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    After some research, I will guess the Nobel prize in Literature will go to Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Likewise, I will say the White Helmets or Syria Civil Defense will receive the Nobel peace prize

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      It seems to be very difficult for some English speakers to realize that most writers in the world do not write in English and that the English speaking world publishes comparatively few books translated from other languages. Being unknwon in some parts of the world does not mean not deserving a Nobel price.

      Personally I think that the Nobel price for literature does not make much sense. It is too much biased towards the very few languages that a committee can read.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        I’ll confess that in any international competition, as in the Olympics, I tend to root for the American team — but, again as in the Olympics, if I take a shine to a foreign contender because he or she has shown heart, or skill, or talent, or class, I’ll happily root for him or her, too.

  11. Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    More old white guys! I can’t even!

    Is it possible to win two prizes for the same thing? CRISPR, for instance, would seem to qualify for medicine as much as chemistry.

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      More old white guys. I know right? I see Phil Plait is unhappy about it. I really like Bad Astronomy though.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been rooting for Philip Roth to get the Nobel Lit prize for what seems like forever, but last year’s prize — given to an American Jew nearly a decade his junior — bodes ill for the dean of dysphoria ever getting his due.

  13. Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    For the Literature prize I’ll go with Murakami.

  14. artkqtarks
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I guessed Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne for physics, and Richard Henderson, Joachim Frank, and Sjors Scheres for chemistry. I wasn’t perfect, but I was able to name four of the six winners in physics and chemistry. Not bad!

  15. Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see how you can compare literature from different countries unless you can read each in their native language.

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      I would bet that there are translators who would disagree with this. Anyway, are you suggesting that one cannot properly appreciate the work of another if it is not read in their language? What if the author writes in a language that is not their own? How should we deal with that?

      • Pierluigi Ballabeni
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        But you can only read what is translated into the few languages you know and you miss evrything else.

      • Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        I’m saying I’ve read several different translations of the same novel (four in the case of The Master and Margarita) and they are simply not the same book.

        Translation isn’t just swapping words from one language to another, it’s interpretation. How do I know I’m not just reading a great translation?

        • Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          Another example: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. The only print version in English is translated from a French translation of the original Polish. Frankly, it sucks, compared with the recent Penguin editions of Lem’s short stories translated directly from the Polish. It also sucks compared with the audio version from Audible which sadly isn’t available in print.

        • Posted October 4, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

          So your complaint is with the skills of translators. I agree that there are good translation and bad translations. Whatever shall we do?

          But again, what about authors who do not write in the native language? If translators can’t get it right, how can they?

          • Posted October 4, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

            I never said I had a problem with translators, I said that translations are not the same as the original text. An English translation of a Polish language novel isn’t the same as the Polish original. Translation isn’t simply transliteration. Translators don’t go through a dictionary swapping a word from one language with the corresponding word from another. Individual words are chosen for their sound and rhythm not just their meaning. It’s not like translating an instruction manual. The words constitute the novel, they don’t just describe what’s happening.

            And there’s a huge difference between a translation of a foreign language novel and a novel written in English by a foreign-language speaker. Conrad and Nabokov wrote Heart of Darkness and Lolita in English, they weren’t translated into English. Beckett also wrote in some of his work in French. His French work is French literature. This has nothing to do with my argument about translation.

            • Posted October 4, 2017 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

              I’m sorry for being so dense, but explain to me how it is different? An author who writes in a language that is not their own is literally doing the same thing as someone who translates another’s work; they are both attempting to convey the work in a different language.

              I do understand that translation is not transliteration. I am able to speak (sort of) and read in more than one language.

              • Posted October 4, 2017 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                It’s not at all the same thing.

                A novelist isn’t just putting things into words, those words constitute the work. People don’t read Nabokov or Joyce for the stories, they read them for the precise choice – or even invention – of words. They aren’t Agatha Christie or Steig Larsson just telling a damn good story where the words just serve the function of telling you something beyond themselves and are essentially invisible.

                You can translate Macbeth into Arabic but it’s no more Shakespeare than a picture of some sunflowers is a Van Gogh.

              • Posted October 4, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

                “They aren’t Agatha Christie or Steig Larsson just telling a damn good story where the words just serve the function of telling you something beyond themselves and are essentially invisible.”

                Yeah, I know. I guess I just can’t make my question clear. My bad. No matter, it’s not important. Sorry to have bothered you.

  16. kieran
    Posted October 5, 2017 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Noble peace prize: Javad Zariff and Fedirica Mogherini, mainly to piss off Trump for saying the Iran Deal was bad.

    Nobel literature prize: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

    For the not the nobel but looks like a nobel and nearly everyone calls it one but it isn’t: William Nordhaus economics of climate change

  17. Blue
    Posted October 5, 2017 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Ms Margaret Atwood … … literature, o’course.


  18. Posted October 5, 2017 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Oh what the heck, Richard Dawkins for Literature!

  19. Posted October 5, 2017 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    If there’s a Nobel Memorial Prize for economics, why isn’t there one for biology?

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