Nobel Laureates honoured by SPIE at Photonics West

The three 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry recipients have been recognised by SPIE at Photonics West in the BiOS plenary session. Greg Blackman reports from the session, where each spoke about their contribution to super resolution microscopy

One of the limitations of super resolution microscopy, namely the ability to image live cells, could be overcome with new microscopy techniques combined with adaptive optics, Nobel Laureate, Dr Eric Betzig, has said in a plenary session at SPIE BiOS.

Celebrating the achievements of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry recipients, SPIE awarded each of the Nobel Laureates – Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, USA, and W E Moerner of Stanford University, USA – with a plaque recognising their work developing light microscopy for imaging at the nanoscale. The ceremony took place on the final day of the biomedical optics and biophotonics conference, BiOS, on 8 February, where Betzig and Moerner both spoke and Hell sent a video message.

Adaptive optics combined with the speed of lattice light-sheet microscopy, a fluorescence microscopy technique with high image acquisition speed, and techniques like PAINT (point accumulation imaging in nanoscale topography) and SIM (structured illumination microscopy) could advance super resolution imaging to the point where it can be used to image living cells in vivo, Betzig commented in his presentation.

Betzig, Hell and Moerner were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing light microscopy techniques that overcome the diffraction limit of light. The techniques mean cellular structures like proteins that are tens of nanometres in size can be imaged.

The disadvantage with super resolution imaging is that PALM (photo activated localisation microscopy) and STED (stimulated emission depletion) require high intensities of light to operate, which is not compatible with live cell imaging.

However, techniques like lattice light-sheet microscopy, which Betzig is working on and which uses a structured light sheet to excite fluorescence and give images over time, has lower phototoxicity and is more compatible with live cell imaging. Betzig commented that lattice light-sheet microscopy has had a good response from his biological collaborators.

Betzig built a PALM system in his friend Harald Hess’s living room. Both Betzig and Hess worked at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs in New Jersey, USA in the early 1990s, where Betzig worked on near-field scanning optical microscopy. Betzig quit Bell Labs in 1994 disillusioned with science to work for his father’s machine tool company, but after four years reconnected with Hess and started reading scientific papers again.

Betzig recalled in his speech that the discovery of green fluorescent protein and also the idea that certain proteins can be made to turn on by light before being stimulated to fluoresce was instrumental in his return to working on super resolution imaging. The PALM system he and Hess built in Hess’s living room was made possible because of these biological molecules.

In his presentation, Betzig recognised Moerner’s 1989 scientific paper on the optical detection of a single molecule inside a crystal as an influential paper on his early work on super resolution imaging techniques. Moerner, who also spoke during the BiOS plenary, used high-resolution spectroscopy to make the first optical detection of single molecules inside a solid crystal. This work paved the way for super resolution imaging, as, previously, it was thought that single molecules were optically undetectable.

Hell, who developed the STED microscopy technique, commented in a video presentation shown during the BiOS plenary that it was the molecular states of the proteins that do the revolutionary work and make super resolution microscopy possible.

Related articles:

Light-based innovations win Nobel Prize for Physics and Chemistry

Microscopy made super: The resolving power of super resolution microscopy is opening up new areas of research in cell biology

Further information:

SPIE Photonics West

Stefan Hell, Max Planck Institute in Göttingen

Eric Betzig, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, USA

W.E. Moerner, Stanford University, USA

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