Like a traveling salesman, physicist Eric Betzig and members of his Virginia laboratory made regular summer pilgrimages to Woods Hole with a microscope packed in the back of a minivan. At the Marine Biological Laboratory, the best biologists in the world would push Betzig’s technology to its edge, letting him know what they wanted a next-generation microscope to do.
On Wednesday, Betzig shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for work that has broken the barriers of traditional microscopy, allowing scientists to see tiny features of cells and molecules that lie outside the physical limits of regular light microscopes.
Betzig, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va., shared the prize with Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany and William E. Moerner of Stanford University. The three independently developed technologies that helped create the basis for a new field called nanoscopy that allows scientists to bring into focus viruses, proteins, and other tiny components of life.
In its citation, the Nobel committee lauded the transformative impact their work has collectively had on science.
“In what has become known as nanoscopy, scientists visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells,” the committee wrote. “They can see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain; they can track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s diseases as they aggregate; they follow individual proteins in fertilized eggs as they divide into embryos.”
Betzig said in a phone interview Wednesday that his trips to the nonprofit research institution in Woods Hole have been essential in making sure his technology is not just a technical feat, but also useful for people studying biology.
By the time he started coming to the Marine Biological Laboratory in 2007, Betzig said, the paper describing his Nobel-winning work had already been published and vetted. The nanoscope, called PALM, could take precise images of the membrane of a cell, but the question of how it would be useful was far from settled.
“We still didn’t know much about what it would be good for, what it wouldn’t be good for, what its strengths and weaknesses are,” Betzig said, speaking from Munich, where he was scheduled to give a scientific talk Wednesday that was slightly delayed by a phone call alerting him to the fact that he had won the Nobel.
“We rented a minivan and broke down the instrument and put it back together again and did a whole bunch of experiments over the course of three weeks” in Woods Hole, Betzig said. There, he learned how scientists wanted to use the microscope.
For example, Betzig said, his summers at Woods Hole made it clear what biologists wanted to see.
“It’s nice to be able to look at one protein, but life is driven by the interactions between proteins, so it’s really essential to be able to see multiple proteins at a time to understand these interactions,” Betzig said.
Betzig did not make it to Woods Hole this past summer, but hopes that his post-Nobel life will be exactly the same as it is now. And next time he has a “bleeding edge” technology that he would like to be vetted and tested, he will be back to the Cape.
“One thing I liked about being in microscopy is it gets you out of your box constantly, because there’s such a diverse range of applications,” Betzig said. “When you’re the guy who has the one new tool, all of a sudden they are coming to you.”