A touch of Oscar night in the sciences – Commentary on the Nobel Prizes 2017

It is the time of the year again. The physics, chemistry, and medicine communities anxiously turn their heads to Stockholm. Who will be awarded the Nobel Prize this year thus lining up with the great figures in the history of science? Some scientists – unfortunately, this year it is again only men that were honored – are likely to spend a sleepless night in anticipation of the awaited call from Stockholm, which is not less than the highlight of an often already out stand  scientific career.And like in the case of the movie stars and starlets the announcement is followed by the discussions, who earned the award or who possibly should have earned it instead.

In physics there is no question whether this year’s awardees deserve the honor. The detection of gravitational waves was a „once-in-twenty-years“ event in physics and did not lag much the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 (Nobel Prize 2015)in significance. In fact, there are parallels in the Nobel Prizes for Physics of 2015 and 2017 and for what they have been awarded. Just as two years ago for the Higgs particles, the „greatest benefit for mankind“ demanded by founder Alfred Nobel reveal themselves somewhat less directly with gravitational waves. However, as the Higgs particle was the last experimentally not yet discovered puzzle piece in the standard model of elementary particle physics, the gravitational waves were the last confirmation of by predictions made the general relativity theory of Albert Einstein. We can say that with the detection of gravitational waves, the physics of the 20th century has come to a close. At the same time, an exciting research tool for the physics of the 21st century has opened up. A third parallel to the Nobel Prize for the Higgs particle: For the laureates only less than two years passed from their discovery to the award, an unusually short time for the Nobel Prize – one more piece of evidence that this year there would have hardly been any more suitable honoree.

The price for medicine and physiology, which was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, was less clearly expected. The US scientists were honored for their discovery ofthe inner clock of living beings. Many had expected the discovery of the gene-editing methodology CRISPR by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier to be honored. But the two shooting stars of biotechnology will have to wait some more. They share this fate with this year’s laureates: their work dates back to the 1980s. But figuring out how our body ticks clearly deserves a Nobel Prize. The three honorees realized that our inner clock is extremely precise, controlling our sleep, but also our behavior, our hormonal level, our body temperature, and our metabolism.They even managed to determine the functioning of our biological clock down to the level of genes and proteins.

Also this year’s bearers of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry had to wait a long time to receive the highest prize award within the sciences. The German-US Joachim Frank, the Swiss Jacques Dubochet, and the Scottish Richard Henderson developed a method in the 1980s to visualize complex biomolecules that made these investigable, the so-called cryo-electron microscopy. The first of the three, Frank, had developed a method in which two-dimensional images taken by the electron microscope are reconstructed in the original three-dimensional structure of the object. Dubochet was then the first to study biomolecules under the electron microscope. For this purpose he used water that had been cooled so rapidly that it solidified in liquid form around a sample of biological material (hence the name cyro-electron microscopy). With this method the natural form of the biomole cules remained intact. It is as if the molecule had been fused into glass in order to then be easily viewable. Finally, Henderson succeeded in extracting the three-dimensional structure of a protein in atomic resolution. That these pioneering achievements fulfilled the very requirements in Nobel’s testament finds its reflection in the very words if the Nobel Committee: “ Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualize processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals. This method has pushed biochemistry into a new era.“ With the help of cryo-electronic microscopy, researchers are now able to determine the structure and function of the most diverse proteins, from viruses that attack us, through biosensors in our bodies to those proteins which are particularly important for certain drugs to be efficient. This technique was also used when, two years ago, the Zika virus was suspected to be responsible for the epidemic of babies born with brain damage. In order to find efficient drug therapies,for month biochemists using cyro-electron microscopy produced three-dimensional images of the virus in higher and higher resolution.

How nice that at least once a year the Nobel Prize reminds us of how exciting science can be. Likewise, the annual Hollywood spectacle in March serves those of us who are not informed about the latest movies release schedule to make an informed decision about what movie we want towatch on our next Sunday evening outing. We should note however that the developments in the natural sciences are often characterized by a dramatic plot that easily matches many thrillers.


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