Nobel Nanoscopy

The Invisible Man

GERMANY-US-NOBEL-CHEMISTRY
Nobel Prize winning chemist Stefan Hell.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The work of German scientist Stefan Hell, who has won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, could help find new treatments for illnesses such as Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Stefan Hell, a Romanian-German physicist has won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, together with the Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner.
    • The prize is for their work in developing high-resolution fluorescent microscopy.
    • The technique can help find treatments for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Stefan Hell thought it was a dumb joke when Stefan Normark from the Swedish Academy for Sciences and chairman of the Nobel Prize committee called and told him the news. “Thank God I recognized his voice!” Mr. Hell said.

At a ceremony later this year, the Romanian-German physicist will recieve the Nobel Prize in chemistry, together with the Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner, for their work in developing high-resolution fluorescent microscopy.

When Mr. Hell stepped in front of the cameras on Wednesday afternoon at the Göttingen Max Planck Institute, he could hardly conceal his joy. “We already killed a few bottles of champagne,” he said as if he needed to explain.

Mr. Hell and his two U.S. colleagues have taken microscopy to a whole new level, making microscopic developments possible through nano resolutions. The scientists are pioneers in the new field of nanoscopy, which allows single molecules to be tracked in living cells.

Mr. Hell and his two colleagues have taken microscopy to a whole new level, making microscopic developments possible using nano resolutions.

Nanoscopy will be helpful in diagnosing illnesses and developing new drugs, allowing researchers, for instance, to track the effects of new medication in cells at a far more detailed level.

“The technique is especially helpful in seeing how illnesses develop,” said Gunnar von Heine from the Nobel Prize jury. “Nanoscopy will help us treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, among other applications.”

As for his own contribution, Mr. Hell develop stimulated emission depletion, or STED, microscopy. Under this technique, two laser beams are utilized, one stimulating fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancelling out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume.

“I was criticized for my way of doing research, “ Mr. Hell said. “But I didn’t let those critics influence me.”

The Max Planck Institute was an important support for Mr. Hell, providing funding and helping him develop his research. That is one of the reasons, he said, why he doesn’t share critics’ opinions about Germany as a place to pursue fundemental and applied research.

Germany’s minister for research, Johanna Wanka, congratulated Mr. Hell on his achievements, saying his Nobel Prize “underscores Germany’s top position in research.”

Since 2002, Mr. Hell has been director for biophysical chemistry at the Max Planck Insititute in Göttingen and is also a professor at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

His American colleagues work at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford University.

Prizes are nothing new for Mr. Hell. He recently received the Norwegian Kavli Prize, which honors scientific work in the areas of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. Eight years ago, he also received a prestigious German prize for playing the saxophone.

 

Helmut Steuer is based in Stockholm and reports on Scandinavia for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: steuer@handelsblatt.com

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