By: Melanie Ohi, University of Michigan and Michael Cianfrocco, University of Michigan

Many people will never have heard of cryo-electron microscopy before the announcement that Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson had won the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work developing this technology. So what is it, and why is it worthy of this honor?

Cryo-electron microscopy – or cryo-EM – is an imaging technology that allows scientists to obtain pictures of the biological “machines” that work inside our cells. Most amazingly, it can reconstruct individual snapshots into movie-like scenes that show how protein components of these biological machines move and interact with each other.

It’s like the difference between having a list of all of the individual parts of an engine versus being able to see the engine fully assembled and running. The parts list can tell you a lot, but there’s no replacement for seeing what you’re studying in action.


By: Vera Keller, University of Oregon


Galileo demonstrates a telescope to the doge of Venice. Giuseppe Bertini

While the Nobel Prizes are 115 years old, rewards for scientific achievement have been around much longer. As early as the 17th century, at the very origins of modern experimental science, promoters of science realized the need for some system of recognition and reward that would provide incentive for advances in the field.

Before the prize, it was the gift that reigned in science. Precursors to modern scientists – the early astronomers, philosophers, physicians, alchemists and engineers – offered wonderful achievements, discoveries, inventions and works of literature or art as gifts to powerful patrons, often royalty. Authors prefaced their publications with extravagant letters of dedication; they might, or they might not, be rewarded with a gift in return. Many of these practitioners worked outside of academe; even those who enjoyed a modest academic salary lacked today’s large institutional funders, beyond the Catholic Church. Gifts from patrons offered a crucial means of support, yet they came with many strings attached.

Eventually, different kinds of incentives, including prizes and awards, as well as new, salaried academic positions, became more common and the favor of particular wealthy patrons diminished in importance. But at the height of the Renaissance, scientific precursors relied on gifts from powerful princes to compensate and advertise their efforts.

Presented to please a patron

With courtiers all vying for a patron’s attention, gifts had to be presented with drama and flair. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) presented his newly discovered moons of Jupiter to the Medici dukes as a “gift” that was literally out of this world. In return, Prince Cosimo “ennobled” Galileo with the title and position of court philosopher and mathematician.

If a gift succeeded, the gift-giver might, like Galileo in this case, be fortunate enough to receive a gift in return. Gift-givers could not, however, predict what form it would take, and they might find themselves burdened with offers they couldn’t refuse. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the great Danish Renaissance astronomer, received everything from cash to chemical secrets, exotic animals and islands in return for his discoveries.


Remembering Harry Kroto

Harry KrotoA giant among giants

Harry Kroto, distinguished chemist and pioneering nanocarbons researcher, passed away on April 30, 2016 at the age of 76. Kroto, a giant among giants, made an immense impact not only on ECS and its scientific discipline – but the world at large.

“Harry Kroto’s passing is a great loss to science and society as a whole,” says Bruce Weisman, professor at Rice University and division chair of the ECS Nanocarbons Division. “He was an exceptional researcher whose 1985 work with Rick Smalley and Bob Curl launched the field of nanocarbons research and nanotechnology.”

Revolutionizing chemistry

That work conducted by Kroto, Smalley, and Curl yielded the discovery of the C60 structure that became known as the buckminsterfullerene (or the “buckyball” for short). Prior to this breakthrough, there were only two known forms of pure carbon: graphite and diamond. The work opened a new branch in chemistry with unbound possibilities, earning the scientists the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The field of nanocarbons and fullerenes, since the discovery by Kroto and company, has evolved into an area with almost limitless potential. The applications for this scientific discipline are wide-ranging – from energy harvesting to sensing and biosensing to biomedical applications and far beyond. Research in this field continues to fill the pages of scholarly journals, making possible innovations that were not even conceived before the seminal 1985 work.


Let’s Hear It for LEDs

More and more households are using LED light bulbs due to improved efficiency, reliability, and now a more affordable cost over their incandescent cousins. With droves of scientists researching in the area of LED and producing new developments, these bulbs are beginning to become the new norm.

Let’s take a look at the journey the LED bulb has gone though thus far.


New Microscope Collects Dynamic Images

Growing microtubule endpoints and tracks are color coded by growth phase lifetime.Credit: Betzig Lab, HHMI/Janelia Research Campus, Mimori-Kiyosue Lab, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology

Growing microtubule endpoints and tracks are color coded by growth phase lifetime.
Credit: Betzig Lab, HHMI/Janelia Research Campus, Mimori-Kiyosue Lab, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology

A new discovery out of Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus is allowing biologists to see 3-D images of subcellular activity in real time.

They’re calling it lattice light sheet microscopy, and it’s providing yet another leap forward for light microscopy. The imaging platform was developed by Eric Betzig and colleagues in order to collect high-resolution images rapidly and minimize damage to cells.

Continue reading to check out the amazing video that shows the five different stages during the division of a HeLa cell as visualized by the lattice light sheet microscope.


The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.”

The awardees are as follows: Eric Betzig, 54, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, VA.; Stefan W. Hell, 51, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen, and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidlberg, Germany; and William E. (W.E.) Moerner, 61, of Stanford University.

Because of these men, it is possible for us to obtain optical images at the nanometer scale and understand molecules.

This from The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

For a long time optical microscopy was held back by a presumed limitation: that it would never obtain a better resolution than half the wavelength of light. Helped by fluorescent molecules the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2014 ingeniously circumvented this limitation. Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nanodimension.

Read the full article here.

The committee noted the importance of these achievements, by which we’re able to see how proteins in fertilized eggs divide into embryos and track proteins involved in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

“Due to their achievements, the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld,” said the committee.

Find out more information on the discoveries of the winners at Chemical & Engineering News.

Also, check out our past issue of Interface entitled, “25 Years of Scanning Electrochemical Microscopy.” The journal is completely open access, allowing everyone to partake in and share this wealth of information.

ECS Connections to 2014 Physics Nobel Prize

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Shuji Nakamura, a professor at the University of California

Shuji Nakamura, the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics and former ECS Plenary speaker, is awarded for his invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes.
Credit: Randall Lamb

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Shuji Nakamura, professor of materials and of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California and 2010 ECS Plenary speaker.

The prize is for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes, which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources, and is shared with ECS member Isamu Akasaki of Meijo University and Nagoya University, Japan; and Hiroshi Amano of Nagoya University.

In his plenary talk at the 218th ECS Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, Nakamura described the current status of III-nitride based light emitting diodes (LEDs) and laser diodes. Nitride-based white LEDs have been used for many application such as LCD TV backlight, lighting for inside/outside applications and others.

According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, when Nakamura, Akasaki and Amono “produced bright blue light beams from their semiconductors in the early 1990s, they triggered a fundamental transformation of lighting technology. Red and green diodes had been around for a long time, but without blue light, white lamps could not be created. Despite considerable efforts, both in the scientific community and in industry, the blue LED had remained a challenge for three decades.”

The LED lamp “holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids,” the academy continued.

Here’s a list of articles in the ECS Digital Library written by the 2014 Physics Nobel Prize Winners. You can look at them for free:

Hiroshi Amano and Isamu Akasaki

Widegap Column-III Nitride Semiconductors for UV/Blue Light Emitting Devices

Growth and Luminescence Properties of Mg-Doped GaN Prepared by MOVPE

Isamu Akasaki

Epitaxial Growth and Properties of AIxGal.xN by MOVPE

Etching Characteristics and Light Figures of the {111} Surfaces of GaAs

Shuji Nakamura

Piezoelectric Field in Semi-Polar InGaN/GaN Quantum Wells

Read more about Shuji Nakamura’s plenary talk.

Read more about 2014 Nobel Prize winners for Physics.