Oct. 8, 2014

Two Cornell alumni win Nobel Prize in chemistry

Eric Betzig
William Moerner

Eric Betzig, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’88, and William Moerner, M.S. ’78, Ph.D. ’82, have shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for groundbreaking achievements in optical microscopy.

Betzig, a researcher at the Janelia Farm Research Campus, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, received his master’s and Ph.D. in applied and engineering physics. Moerner, the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, received his master’s and Ph.D. in experimental physics. The two Americans shared the Nobel with German scientist Stefan Hell, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, the Nobel committee announced Oct. 8 in Sweden.

The three were honored for their work in super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, through which the pathways of individual molecules can be imaged inside living cells. The effects of their collective research breakthroughs are felt in many ways: from showing how molecules create synapses between nerve cells to the ability to track protein aggregation involved in diseases of the brain, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, according to the Nobel release announcing the winners.

Working separately, Betzig and Moerner made key discoveries in single-molecule microscopy, which harnesses the ability to toggle on and off the fluorescence of individual molecules. By imaging the same area multiple times and capturing the flow of a few interspersed molecules, the method can provide high-resolution images of single molecules at the nanoscale.

Betzig, Moerner and Hell’s research has pushed the light microscope past a longstanding diffraction limit, said Warren Zipfel, Cornell associate professor of biomedical engineering. Fluorescence microscopy has played a major role in biological and biomedical research over the past several decades, he said, and the 1990s in particular saw dramatic improvements, such as 3-D microscopic imaging and new ways to fluorescently label cells. Even so, observations remained limited to objects larger than about 1/4 of a micrometer (a typical living cell is about 20 micrometers wide). The techniques developed by the Nobel laureates can provide more than a tenfold increase in the resolving capability of a light microscope, to about 20 nanometers (1/50 of a micrometer), Zipfel said.

“Each developed different approaches to the problem, and together their methods provide the foundation for ways to image down to the single protein level in live cells,” Zipfel said.

The laureates’ work has led to the design of instrumentation used at many universities. In fact, Zipfel has just received National Science Foundation funding to purchase a Zeiss version of Betzig’s super-resolution microscope, which will soon be available on campus for use by Cornell researchers.

Betzig did his Ph.D. work at Cornell under Michael Isaacson, then a faculty member in applied and engineering physics.

Albert J. Sievers, Cornell’s E.L. Nichols Professor of Physics Emeritus, was Moerner’s Ph.D. thesis adviser. Moerner’s Cornell thesis was on a technique Moerner had developed called persistent spectral hole-burning, which uses absorption lines of light to study molecules in solids.

It was this early foray into single-molecule studies that laid the foundation for Moerner’s later interests in fluorescence-related optics, for which he received the Nobel, Sievers said.

Moerner was smart, hard-working, “very nice, very friendly,” and well-rounded – he recalled Moerner’s interest in singing. Sievers also had Moerner’s lab notebooks bound – “so later students could see what lab notebooks should look like,” Sievers said.

He remembered Moerner visiting the Cornell University Library to find its longest thesis – which was 40 pages longer than what Moerner had so far.

“So he stopped right there,” Sievers said. “He didn’t want to be the person with the longest thesis in the library.”