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The science behind the 2017 Nobel Prizes

POSTED: October 5, 2017 9:02 a.m.
Robert Lawrence/

A closer look at the ideas, theories and work behind the 2017 Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry in 2017.

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Each October, scientists, artists and visionaries from around the world are nominated and chosen to receive Nobel prizes for outstanding work in their field.

This is a tradition that has continued since 1901, bringing attention to innovators who have stood on the proverbial shoulders of giants. Here is a look at the scientific discoveries that paved the way for this year’s Nobel prizes in physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry.

Physiology or medicine: Biology is synchronized to astronomy

On Monday, three Americans were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering key genetic "gears" of the body's 24-hour biological clock.

Humans are well-acquainted with the 24-hour cycles of earthly rotations that set our pace. As King Solomon poetically observed, “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteneth to his place where he arose.”

This ancient 24-hour cycle governs not only the rhythms of human life, but also the routines and schedules of every other living creature that swims, creeps or flies among us. Although it may seem that the natural cycles are cued solely by the rising and setting of the sun, science has proven that biology has a clock of its own that ticks in sync with the steady rotation of our planet.

The phrase “circadian rhythm” was born from this idea and became commonplace vernacular by the 1960s. During this decade, a handful of researchers interested in investigating the links between time and biological cycles found their niche in a new field of science known as “chronobiology.”

Not until this era did we begin to have the genetic know-how to explain why, for instance, a plant continues to open and close its leaves in sync with day and night when placed in continuous darkness.

As it turns out, a small network of genes is responsible for controlling such cycles. They work together in networks that are self-regulated by genetic feedback loops that control the release of certain proteins in 24-hour cycles.

This oscillating process is happening in several tissues at once, which are synchronized to one another throughout the organism, and also synchronized to external factors such as day and night.

These circadian rhythm genes are found throughout biology, from single-celled bacteria to plants and animals. In humans, the improper function of these genes may cause an array of disorders related to sleep, metabolism, memory and mental health.

A significant portion of the genetic puzzle-solving that led to our current understanding of how circadian rhythms work was accomplished by researchers Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Robash and Michael W. Young. They were awarded the $1.1 million prize “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.”

Physics: The gravity of Einstein’s theories

On Tuesday, three Americans were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of four signals of gravitational waves that had been predicted by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago.

Since the first telescopes were pointed skyward in the 17th-century, we have relied on our ability to manipulate and detect waves of light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation to observe distant phenomena in our universe. However, this is not the only type of signal that travels through the cosmos.

Gravity also comes in waves. This was Einstein’s mathematical prediction 100 years ago, which was a part of his general theory of relativity. Einstein claimed that gravitational fields can be disturbed by the acceleration of massive objects and this disturbance would be manifest as ripples in space that move at the speed of light.

Einstein also predicted that the existence of these gravitational waves would be nearly impossible to prove because the physical effect of gravitational waves only measures at about 1/1000th the size of a proton, which is far too small to detect.

Undeterred, scientists attempted to devise detectors that were capable of the challenge. When laser technology became available in the 1960s, researchers quickly saw its potential as means for detecting gravitational waves.

Researchers built large instruments in which a laser beam was split into two perpendicular beams, which both traveled a distance of several kilometers across which they were reflected back and forth several times. A precise comparison of travel time for each beam could provide evidence of distortions caused by gravitational waves.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is the largest and most sophisticated instrument of this kind to ever be built. For the first time ever, a gravitational wave was detected at LIGO in 2015, an event that was given the distinct and oh-so-memorable name "GW150914." Researchers determined that the merging and collision of two black holes caused this gravitational wave.

Not only did this prove yet another theory of Einstein’s, but it also demonstrated the utility of a new tool that will be used in the ensuing decades to further investigate the theory of relativity and our universe.

The development of LIGO and the early instruments that preceded it was led by Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne, a Logan High graduate. They were awarded the prize “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”

Chemistry: Molecular mapping in 3-D

On Tuesday, a group of scientists, including one American, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their pioneering work developing new methods of visualizing biomolecules, including the Zika virus.

As with telescopes, microscope visibility is limited by the physical nature of light. The smallest wavelengths of visible light are about 400 nanometers, and it becomes difficult to see particles that are much smaller than that with regular microscopes. Such microscopes are sufficient for viewing cells, but not for viewing smaller things like viruses and proteins, or the finer details of a cell’s anatomy.

Microscopes that use a beam of electrons instead of light were first developed during the 1930s and enabled scientists to see beyond this limitation. But the first electron microscopes were not very useful for viewing biological samples because those samples were unable to withstand the intense bombardment of electrons.

Scientists persisted in developing the technical capability of electron microscopes, however, as well as methods for preparing biological samples so that they could tolerate an electron beam. Determining the appropriate dosage of electrons and quickly freezing the sample were important parts of the development.

Further efforts to improve the technique began to bear significant fruit by the 1990s when the first high-resolution images of biological samples were recorded using the cryo-electron microscopy technique.

As the ability to image fine details continued to improve and computational power progressed exponentially during the years that followed, researchers developed sophisticated computer algorithms capable of weaving together thousands of 2-D microscope images into a 3-D rendering, mapped to nearly an atomic level of detail.

Thanks to these advancements, cryo-electron microscopy has become the most sought-after method for investigating the physical structure of biological particles. The ability to generate 3-D structure maps of proteins, viruses and other biological particles at the highest resolutions possible is essential to understanding how important biological processes work.

Some of the greatest contributions to the fields of electron microscopy and structural biology were made by Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson. They were awarded the Nobel Prize “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.”
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