Methods of measuring and studying the large molecules of living organisms have won this year's Nobel prize in chemistry. Three scientists share the pounds 700,000 prize for their pioneering work on how to carry out the difficult task of analysing large biomolecules. The work has led directly to breakthroughs in the diagnosis of malaria and ovarian cancer, as well as ensuring that food is free of toxic substances.
The Nobel committee last week announced that half the prize money will be shared between John Fenn of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and Koichi Tanaka, of the Shimadzu Corporation in Kyoto, Japan. Both researchers have worked on the technique of mass spectroscopy. The other half of the prize goes to Kurt Wuthrich (right) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who helped to develop the process of nuclear magnetic resonance.
Studying these large molecules has proven to be difficult because they are more delicate and cumbersome than the relatively simple molecules of inorganic chemistry. Fenn developed a method that was based on producing charged particles of protein in a solution. As water in a droplet evaporated, the protein ions formed. Eventually, freely hovering protein ions remain, allowing scientists to estimate their mass by setting them in motion and estimating the time it takes for them to cover a known distance. Tanaka developed the technique further. Instead of relying on charged protein ions forming through gradual evaporation, he blasted the solution with a pulse of laser light, so that the molecules are freely released. Tanaka was the first to demonstrate the application of laser light to the study of biological molecules, the Nobel committee says in its citation.
The other half of the prize goes to Wuthrich, who made it possible to use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) on protein molecules. He developed a general method of systematically assigning certain fixed points in the protein molecule, and also a principle for determining the distances between these - vital elements in calculating the molecule's three-dimensional shape.
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