Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson win the 2017 Nobel prize in chemistry.

The Nobel prize in chemistry has been awarded to the three scientists for developing a technique to produce images of the molecules of life frozen in time. The technique, called cryo-electron microscopy, allows biomolecules to be visualised in their natural configuration for the first time, triggering a “revolution in biochemistry”, according to the Nobel committee. The latest versions of the technology mean scientists can record biochemical processes as they unfold in film-like sequences.

Richard Henderson, a Scottish scientist and professor at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, was the first to successfully modify the electron microscope to image a protein involved in photosynthesis, by using a weaker beam and taking pictures from many angles. Joachim Frank, a German-born professor at Columbia University in New York, developed mathematical algorithms that allowed the method to be applied to a wider array of molecules. Jacques Dubochet, who is Swiss and an honorary professor at the University of Lausanne, pioneered a flash freezing method that turned the water inside cells into a glassy solid, rather than ice crystals which would damage the cellular structure. His vitrification technique allowed biological samples to be frozen while retaining their natural shape.

Cryo-electron microscopy has allowed scientists to explore the architecture of everything from the proteins that cause antibiotic resistance to the surface of the Zika virus. Last year the 3D structure of the enzyme producing the amyloid of Alzheimer’s disease was published using this technology.

Example of enzyme structure determined at the E.M.Unit: G. Sorghi nitrilase, a cyanide reducing nitrilase