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
0

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.”


Microsoft urges regulation of face-recognizing tech

Updated 15 July 2018
0

Microsoft urges regulation of face-recognizing tech

  • Microsoft and other tech companies have used facial recognition technology for years for tasks such as organizing digital photographs
  • While the technology can be used for good, perhaps finding missing children or known terrorists, it can also be abused

SAN FRANCISCO: Microsoft’s chief legal officer on Friday called for regulation of facial recognition technology due to the risk to privacy and human rights.
Brad Smith made a case for a government initiative to lay out rules for proper use of facial recognition technology, with input from a bipartisan and expert commission.
Facial recognition technology raises significant human rights and privacy concerns, Smith said in a blog post.
“Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge,” he said.
“Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech.”
It could become possible for businesses to track visitors or customers, using what they see for decisions regarding credit scores, lending decisions, or employment opportunities without telling people.
He said scenarios portrayed in fictional films such as “Minority Report,” “Enemy of the State,” and even the George Orwell dystopian classic “1984” are “on the verge of becoming possible.”
“These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products,” Smith said.
“In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses.”
Microsoft and other tech companies have used facial recognition technology for years for tasks such as organizing digital photographs.
But the ability of computers to recognize people’s faces is improving rapidly, along with the ubiquity of cameras and the power of computing hosted in the Internet cloud to figure out identities in real time.
While the technology can be used for good, perhaps finding missing children or known terrorists, it can also be abused.
“It may seem unusual for a company to ask for government regulation of its products, but there are many markets where thoughtful regulation contributes to a healthier dynamic for consumers and producers alike,” Smith said.
“It seems especially important to pursue thoughtful government regulation of facial recognition technology, given its broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse.”
Concerns about misuse prompted Microsoft to “move deliberately” with facial recognition consulting or contracting, according to Smith.
“This has led us to turn down some customer requests for deployments of this service where we’ve concluded that there are greater human rights risks,” Smith said.