2017 Nobel Prizes Announced

This composite image of the protein β-galactosidase shows the progressive resolution of cryo-electron microscopy from mere blobs several years ago (left) to ultrafine 0.22-nanometer resolution today (right). Three pioneers of cryo-electron microscopy have been honored with the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Photo Credit: Veronica Falconieri, Sriram Subramaniam, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health.

Each October brings a spotlight to elite researchers across the globe with the announcement of the Nobel Prizes. Thus far this week has brought honor to nine individuals in chemistry, physics, and physiology.

On Monday, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, awarded by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, went to three Americans for their work on circadian rhythms and the molecular mechanisms of the biological clock. Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University and Michael Young of The Rockefeller University share the $1.1 million prize equally. While knowledge of a biological clock dates back to the 18th century, it wasn't until the late 20th century that its genetic basis was understood. In 1984, Hall and Rosbash (as did, separately, Young) sequenced the first gene identified with the biological clock, Period. In 1994, Young identified a second gene, Timeless, that worked with the first. Since then, a number of other discoveries have contributed to the field. You can learn more about this year's award and recipients here.

On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the three physicists who would be sharing this year's Nobel Prize for Physics: Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of the California Institute of Technology. These three scientists, with the contributions of the late Ronald Drever, came up with the concept and guided the construction of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) where the existence of gravitational waves was proven a mere two years ago and offering new ways to observe the universe. Weiss will receive one half of the $1.1 million prize, and Thorne and Barish will split the other half. You can learn more about their contributions to physics at the Nobel Prize site.

On Wednesday, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry awardees were announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The $1.1 million will be shared equally among three men who pioneered the technique of cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM): Richard Henderson of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom, Joachim Frank of Columbia University, and Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Cryo-EM, as depicted above, moves far beyond the level of detail even the finest X-ray crystallographers were able to produce. This technique allows researchers to freeze biomolecules mid-motion, giving them the opportunity to examine structures and visualize processes, crucial to expanding knowledge about biochemistry and to the development of new drugs. The Nobel website includes more information about the trio's contribution to biochemistry.

All three medals, as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, will be presented to the recipients on December 10 in Stockholm, Sweden. (The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway, on the same date.) Nobel Prizes can be awarded to up to three individuals, each of whom must be alive at the time of the announcement.

Rosbach, Young, Weiss, Thorne, and Barish all are AAAS Fellows.

If you'd like to learn more about biological clocks, the Adolescent Sleep (9-12) lesson lesson invites students to discuss, summarize, and express alternative positions regarding a study on adolescent sleep. In the Night Lights Science Update, hear why bright nighttime lights could also be bad for women's health. Circadian rhythms are not unique to humans. Watch young sunflowers follow the sun.

Proving the existence of gravitational waves was deemed by Science to be its Breakthrough of the Year in 2016. The blog post sharing this announcement has a number of educational resources useful for further exploration of the topic.

Cryo-EM has contributed to a number of topics, including this one, from Science in the Classroom, an annotated paper on how scientists are now using advances in analytics and 3D modeling to create some of the most detailed models of the neuronal synapses to date.


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