William Moerner was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for work on super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. The prize was awarded jointly to Moerner, Eric Betzig of Virginia’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stefan Hell of Germany’s Max Planck Institute.
Moerner is the Harry S. Mosher Professor in Chemistry and is a professor, by courtesy, of applied sciences. He earned his B.S. at Washington University in St. Louis in 1975 before completing his graduate work at Cornell. The Pleasanton, California native started at Stanford in 1998.
Moerner’s work was in a method known as single-molecule microscopy, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The method uses fluorescent molecules that can turn on and off to yield a high-resolution image (at the nanolevel). Scientists take multiple images, allowing just some of the fluorescent molecules to glow at any given time. Superimposing these images on one another reveals a high-resolution result. Moerner and Betzig were both awarded for work done separately to advance this technique.
Hell developed stimulated emission depletion microscopy, which similarly yields high-resolution images. The technique uses laser beams that simultaneously stimulate fluorescent molecules to glow and cancel out any fluorescence other than the desired fluorescence in some nanometer of a cell. Repeating this technique nanometer by nanometer builds the high-resolution image.
Moerner was not home to receive the call from Sweden, instead learning the news from his wife while at a conference in Brazil. He told the Associated Press that this research allows scientists to examine molecules much more closely than before.
“When you can watch one by one, then we are able to observe exactly when it changes from one state to another,” he told the AP.