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The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three researchers who developed a technique that helps scientists reveal some of the smallest details of life. Richard Henderson, Joachim Frank, and Jacques Dubochet received the prize for their work on cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, which allows scientists to take pictures of not just molecules, but atoms themselves, and view how they behave and interact.

Why it matters: The full potential of cryo-EM is only just being explored, but it is already been used to address practical problems. Cryo-EM revealed the atomic structure of the Zika virus, which could help scientists design vaccines and learn why it causes microcephaly. Eventually, researchers would like to use it to create movies of proteins and molecules at work.

How it works: Cryo-EM builds upon electron microscopy, a technique developed almost 100 years ago that creates an image by shooting a beam of electrons at a specimen. Most living organisms are comprised of water, but for electron microscopy to work, the object needs to be in a vacuum - but vacuums dry out objects, which changes their structure. Cryo-electron microscopy instead traps the specimen below a thin film of frozen, glasslike water, letting scientists view the molecules in the same environment they naturally occur. It could lead to "a revolution in biochemistry," says the Academy.

The winners:

  • Joachim Frank from Columbia University refined the process of electron microscopy. He photographs the shadows of molecules. Different angled molecules produce different shadows. Those images can be combined to infer a 3D structure.
  • Richard Henderson from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K. took the first high-resolution picture of a protein using the technique. Prior to this, researchers had believed that electron microscopy could only be used to image non-living objects.
  • Jacques Dubochet from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland found a way to freeze the molecules without causing image-obscuring ice crystals to form. Now we can see not just the outer shapes of the molecules, but the atomic details inside.

What's next: Cryo-EM is still in its early days, but there's a lot it can do. Because cryo-EM involves flash-freezing molecules, the pictures capture a moment in time. Researchers hope to assemble these freeze-frame images into a movie, so they can view how proteins move and interact in cells.

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Health

Pfizer says COVID vaccine over 90% effective in kids

A health care worker preparing a Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine dose in New York City on Oct. 21. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech said their COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective at protecting children between the ages of 5 and 11 from symptomatic infections from the virus, according to a study posted online by the Food and Drug Administration Friday.

Why it matters: Pfizer is seeking an emergency use authorization to vaccinate children — one of the last groups of Americans still largely ineligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Changing the inflation conversation

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Inflation looks like it’ll run hot for longer than plenty of smart people thought it would. The conversation over just how much more Americans will have to pay for their stuff has taken on a new intensity, as supply problems show few signs of fading.

Why it matters: The rate of price growth has remained consistently strong in recent months — a time that some thought would bring cooling prices after an initial reopening spike. What goes on with prices will influence the decisions made by Congress, the Biden Administration, and the Federal Reserve.

The biggest headline from Biden's town hall

President Biden greets attendees during a commercial break in Baltimore last night. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

What matters from President Biden's town hall with CNN's Anderson Cooper at Baltimore Center Stage on Thursday:

The biggest headline: Biden is jettisoning the corporate tax increases that White House officials have insisted, for the past 10 months, are wildly popular across the country. He admitted he doesn't have the votes.