The 2017 Nobel Prizes in Biology, Physics, and Chemistry were announced during the first week of October. To win the Nobel Prize in Biology, researchers isolated a gene that controls circadian rhythm. After four decades of effort, the Nobel laureates in Physics measured gravitational wave emission. The chemistry team developed cryo-electron microscopy techniques that have revolutionized biochemistry. Together, these scientific accomplishments satisfy age-old questions while opening up the doors to even more scientific exploration.
Three Americans, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, became Nobel laureates in Physiology when they discovered the molecular mechanisms behind circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is an internal clock; it tells the body when to sleep, wake up, and eat based on environmental cues such as sunlight and temperature. The researchers’ discoveries not only illustrate how this occurs on the molecular level, but also explain how organisms have adapted to stay in sync with the world around them.
When they isolated the gene period in fruit flies, the Nobel laureates discovered that period causes the protein PER to accumulate in the cell at night. Then, the PER supply degrades throughout the day. Timeless, another gene, encodes the TIM protein, which combines with PER before entering the cell nucleus. Once they arrive in the nucleus, the proteins block period gene activity, stopping the production of PER. Another gene, doubletime, encodes the DBT protein, which also delays PER accumulation. The complex interactions of these genes and proteins adjust biological functions to match the 24-hour cycle of the day, regulating the behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism of all types of organisms. This research provides insight into how biological process impact our everyday lives as well as how daily schedules affect our health.
The Nobel Prize in Physics celebrates the completion of almost fifty years of research conducted by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. By inventing the interferometer, Rainer Weiss, Kip S. Thorne, and Barry C. Barish were finally able to observe the gravitational waves theorized by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago. These waves are emitted when a mass accelerates, filling the universe at the speed of light in response to disruptions in spacetime itself. Millions of years ago, two black holes rotated around each other until they combined into one. Throughout the process, gravitational waves were given off, beginning quietly, then building up to the crescendo of collision. The waves created an infinitesimally small stretch in the fabric of spacetime thousands of time smaller than an atomic nucleus.
Years of preparation were required to detect the waves as they passed the Earth, for such a small emission would be impossible to detect amidst all the other noise in the universe. The laser-based interferometer successfully isolates the waves from external intervention. Laser light is split and reflected by mirrors, creating two beams that cancel each other out under normal circumstances. If a gravitational wave passes through, the distances traveled by the beams of light do not match, and light escapes to hit the detector. The invention of this device confirmed a fundamental aspect of Einstein’s universal model and developed a technology that will revolutionize astronomy for ages.
Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were awarded for the development of cryo-electron microscopy, which freezes biomolecules mid-movement to take pictures with atomic resolution. This allows scientists to observe processes that were previously imperceptible. To visualize three dimensional objects in electron microscopy, 2D images are merged into a 3D structure. The process became even easier when researchers successfully vitrified water around samples. The water cooled around the molecules, allowing them to maintain their shape even as scientists observed them in a vacuum. Cryo-electron microscopy offers new details that will facilitate the development of revolutionary pharmaceuticals.
The 2017 Nobel Prizes in the Sciences display the incredible potential of scientific innovation. With new developments in biology, chemistry, and physics, the future continues to become even more exciting.