Trio takes chemistry Nobel for ‘cool’ method to study molecules

Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry smiles before a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Wednesday, October 4, 2017. (Keystone via AP)
Updated 04 October 2017
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Trio takes chemistry Nobel for ‘cool’ method to study molecules

STOCKHOLM: A revolutionary technique dubbed cryo-electron microscopy, which has shed light on the Zika virus and an Alzheimer’s enzyme, earned scientists Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday.
Thanks to the international team’s “cool method,” which uses electron beams to examine the tiniest structures of cells, “researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualize processes they have never previously seen,” the Nobel chemistry committee said.
This has been “decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals,” it added.
The ultra-sensitive imaging method allows molecules to be flash-frozen and studied in their natural form, without the need for dyes.
It has laid bare never-before-seen details of the tiny protein machines that run all cells.
“When researchers began to suspect that the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged newborns in Brazil, they turned to cryo-EM (electron microscopy) to visualize the virus,” the committee said.
Frank, a 77-year-old, German-born biochemistry professor at Columbia University in New York, was woken from his sleep when the committee announced the prize in Stockholm, six hours ahead.
“There are so many other discoveries every day, I was in a way speechless,” he said. “It’s wonderful news.”
In the first half of the 20th century, biomolecules — proteins, DNA and RNA — were terra incognita on the map of biochemistry.
Because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material, electron microscopes were long thought to be useful only to study the dead matter.
But 72-year-old Henderson, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, used an electron microscope in 1990 to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution, a groundbreaking discovery which proved the technology’s potential.
Frank made it widely usable between 1975 and 1986, developing a method to transform the electron microscope’s fuzzy two-dimensional images into sharp, 3-D composites.
Dubochet, today an honorary professor of biophysics at the University of Lausanne, added water.
Now 75, he discovered in the 1980s how to cool water so quickly that it solidifies in liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the molecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.
The electron microscope’s every nut and bolt have been optimized since these discoveries.
The required atomic resolution was reached in 2013, and researchers “can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules,” according to the Nobel committee.
The trio will share the prize money of nine million Swedish kronor (around $1.1 million or 943,100 euros).
“Normally what I’d do if I was in Cambridge, we will have a party around tea-time in the lab but I expect we’ll have it tomorrow instead,” said Henderson.
The prize announcement was praised by the scientific community and observers around the world.
“By solving more and more structures at the atomic level we can answer biological questions, such as how drugs get into cells, that were simply unanswerable a few years ago,” Jim Smith, science director at the London-based biomedical research charity Wellcome, said in a statement.
Daniel Davis, an immunology professor at the University of Manchester, said details of crucial molecules and proteins that make the human immune system function, can now be seen like never before.
“It has been used in visualising the way in which antibodies can work to stop viruses being dangerous, leading to new ideas for medicines — as just one example,” he said.
John Hardy, a neuroscience professor at University College London, said Dubochet, Frank and Henderson’s technique has transformed the field of structural biology.
It has been used, for example, to compile a detailed identikit of an enzyme implicated in Alzheimer’s.
“Knowing this structure opens up the possibility of rational drug design in this area,” Hardy said.
“And as a biologist, I can say that the pictures are beautiful.”


Ivory Coast looks to solar vehicles to replace bush taxis

Updated 23 September 2018
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Ivory Coast looks to solar vehicles to replace bush taxis

  • A switch to solar and durables may appear paradoxical in Jacqueville, however, as the area produces the lion’s share of the country’s gas and oil
  • Ivory Coast is targeting an 11-percent share of national consumption for renewables by 2020

JACQUEVILLE, Ivory Coast: Hi-tech, cheap — and quiet. The Ivorian resort of Jacqueville just outside Abidjan is betting on solar-powered three-wheelers as it looks to replace traditional but noisy and dirty bush taxis.
“It’s cheaper and relaxing!” says local trader Sandrine Tetelo, of the Chinese-made “Saloni” or “Antara” tricycles, which could eventually spell the end for old-school “woro-woro” four-wheelers as Jacqueville looks to make itself Ivory Coast’s premier eco city.
The mini-cars, 2.7 meters (8.8 feet) long and two meters high, are covered in solar panels each fitted out with six 12-volt batteries, giving the vehicles a range of 140 kilometers (87 miles).
Returning from a visit to China, the solar cars’ promotor Marc Togbe pitched his plan to mayor Joachim Beugre, who was immediately sold.
“We are used to seeing (typically old and beaten up) bush taxis pollute the atmosphere and the environment. We said to ourselves, if we could only replace them by solar trikes,” said Beugre.
“The adventure started in January with two little cars,” added Togbe, who has created a partnership with local businessman Balla Konate.
“I went to China with a friend,” says Konate, “and afterwards I sent four youngsters to Lome for training with a friend who had spoken to me about the project.”
He wants to extend operations to Odienne and Korhogo, towns in the north, the country’s sunniest region.
“Today, a dozen cars are up and running. We are right in the test phase. More and more people are asking for them,” says Beugre, seeing a chance to kill several birds with one solar stone.
Long isolated, his town, nestled between a laguna and the sea, has flourished in terms of real estate and tourism since the 2015 inauguration of a bridge linking Jacqueville to the mainland and cutting transit time to Abidjan to less than an hour.
For the start of the school year in October, Jacqueville plans to bring on stream a 22-seater “solar coach” designed to help deal with “the thorny issue of pupils’ transport.”
Many schoolchildren typically have to travel tens of kilometers from their home village to urban schools.
So far, the trikes have also provided work for around 20 people including drivers and mechanics.
“We’re on the go from six in the morning and finish around 10 or even midnight, weekends too,” says Philippe Aka Koffi, a 24-year-old who has been working as a driver for five months.
“It’s pleasant for doing your shopping more quickly,” says an impressed passenger, Aholia Guy Landry, after riding in a vehicle which can carry four people, driver included.
A big plus is the 100 CFA francs (0.15 euros/$0.18) price of a trip — half a typical downtown “woro-woro” fare — helping to attract between 500 and 1,000 people a day, according to the town hall and promoter.
A switch to solar and durables may appear paradoxical in Jacqueville, however, as the area produces the lion’s share of the country’s gas and oil.
The wells outside the town produce 235 million cubic feet of gas per day, while several foreign firms run pipelines taking oil and gas across the town to feed the refineries at Abidjan.
But the municipality — total budget 140 million CFA francs — sees none of the profits, an issue which has drawn public ire in the past.
The 50-million-CFA trike project is just one piece in a much larger jigsaw which includes the construction of a new eco city on a 240-hectare site among coconut trees.
“It will not be a city for the rich,” insists Beugre, showing off a blueprint replete with cycle paths and a university.
“All social strata who respect the environment will be able to live there,” he adds.
Yet at national level, such plans are conspicuous by their absence.
Ivory Coast, west African leader in electricity production — 75 percent of which comes from thermal energy and the remainder from hydroelectric dams — is targeting an 11-percent share of national consumption for renewables by 2020.
Even though by September the country had burned through barely one single megawatt of solar energy for this year, Beugre is undaunted.
“Our ecological project will go all the way” and “stand up to the power of oil and gas,” says the cowboy-hatted local politician.
“In years to come, we want to ensure that these solar-power machines become the main means of travel in the area.”