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From Blue LED to the Brain’s GPS

Announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prizes highlights advances in microscopy, neuroscience and optics

American John O'Keefe...


Researchers from the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway and France were awarded the world’s most important scientific prize. The announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prizes recognized contributions that surpassed the boundaries of conventional optical microscopy, made the production of LED bulbs possible, identified how the human brain orients itself in space and laid out how big corporations should be regulated.

Two Americans and one German won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for finding a way for microscopes to visualize the minute structures within live cells. Eric Betzig, 54, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, William Moerner, 61, of Stanford University, and Stefan Hell, 52, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, were awarded the prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Since the 17th century, optical microscopes made it possible to study microorganisms, but only to a certain point. Conventional optical microscopy has a physical limitation expressed in 1873 by the German physicist Ernst Abbe: its resolution would be less than half the wavelength of light used. For visible light, this limit is 0.2 microns (one thousandth of a millimeter). A bacteria is not much larger than this, and there was little hope of seeing any details within cells.

... and the Norwegian couple Edvard and May-Britt Moser: how people orient themselves in complex and distinct spaces

GEIR MOGEN / NTNU… and the Norwegian couple Edvard and May-Britt Moser: how people orient themselves in complex and distinct spacesGEIR MOGEN / NTNU

The 0.2 micron limit still holds, but the three scientists found a way to circumvent it by tagging biological molecules with a protein called GFP, which, under certain conditions, becomes fluorescent. As a result of the discoveries of Betzig, Moerner and Hell, microscopy became nanoscopy: the nanometer, or one millionth of a millimeter, is the scale of individual molecules. This development made it possible to observe how synapses in the brain form and monitor the proteins involved in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. “Microscopy, which was a biological technique has become a chemical technique,” said Sven Lidin, Chairman of the Nobel Committee in Chemistry.

In 2000, Hell developed the first method, in which two laser beams are used. One of them excites the fluorescent molecules to glow, while the other quenches the fluorescence of all but those of nanometer size. By scanning the sample, the microscope generates an image at a much higher resolution than the limit stipulated by Abbe. Six years later, Betzig and Moerner laid the foundation for the second method, which consists of the possibility of turning the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. Scientists image the same area multiple times, letting only a few molecules glow each time. Superimposing these images yields an image higher than the 0.2-micron limit.



GPS embedded in the brain
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a trio of researchers: John O’Keefe, 75, at University College London, United Kingdom, and the married couple May-Britt Moser, 51, and Edvard Moser, 52, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, for their discovery of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain allowing it to orient itself in different surroundings. “This inner GPS makes it possible to orient ourselves in space, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive functioning,” according to the Nobel Committee’s press release.

The contributions of O’Keefe and the Mosers were a response to a question that had confounded neuroscientists: how does the brain map out its surroundings and how do people orient themselves in complex and distinct spaces based on this map? O’Keefe identified the first cellular components of this positioning system in 1971. At the time, he observed that a group of neurons in an area of the brain called the hippocampus was always activated when a mouse was placed at a certain location in a room more than once. In other words, the brain marked these places as points of reference. He dubbed these cells “place cells.”

Amano and Akasaki: transforming how the world is illuminated

KAZ PHOTOGRAPHY / GETTY IMAGES… Amano and Akasaki: transforming how the world is illuminatedKAZ PHOTOGRAPHY / GETTY IMAGES

In the mid-1990s, two Norwegian post-docs arrived at O’Keefe’s laboratory: May-Britt and Edvard Moser. They were interested in place cells, and upon returning to Norway, they devoted themselves to this area of research,  investigating the connections between these cells and other nerve cells. They observed that, in the medial entorhinal cortex, a region of the brain next to the hippocampus, certain cells were activated when a rodent passed through a given point in space. They let the animals move around freely and monitored their brain activity using electrodes. They then recorded where the entorhinal cortex cells were activated. In 2005, they published an article in the journal Nature asserting that the activated locations formed a hexagonal grid, which they dubbed “grid cells,” constituting a system of spatial coordinates.

The missing light
A trio of Japanese researchers won the Nobel Prize in Physics.  Isamu Akasaki, 85, and Hiroshi Amano, 54, both at Nagoya University, Japan, and Shuji Nakamura, 60, at the University of California, Santa Barbara,  transformed how the world is illuminated, making it more energy efficient. In the early 1990s, they developed a blue light-emitting diode (LED), which enabled the creation of energy-saving white light sources that are environmentally sustainable, known as LED bulbs.

Stefan Hell (left), Eric Betzig and William Moerner (right): microscopy becomes nanoscopy


LEDs are electronic devices that convert electrical energy into light using semiconductor materials. “With LEDs, electricity is converted into light particles — photons — leading to efficiency gains compared to other sources of energy in which most of the electricity is converted into heat and only a small amount into light,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Blue LED was developed recently. Up until the mid-1990s, only green- and red-light emitting diodes existed. But a third component was needed to obtain white light, which illuminates the world today.

Professor Isamu Akasaki and his PhD student Amano worked together at Nagoya University. Nakamura worked at a small Japanese company, Nichia Chemicals. The three scientists suspected that the semiconductor material needed to obtain blue light emission had to be gallium nitride – and they tried to obtain high quality crystals of the compound. Using different methods, they created the first blue LEDs in 1992.

Tirole: how to regulate industries with a few powerful firms

IDEITirole: how to regulate industries with a few powerful firmsIDEI

Physicist Vanderlei Salvador Bagnato, a professor at the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (USP) in São Carlos, believes that the Nobel laureate researchers’ main achievement was to obtain the missing element needed to unleash what he calls the third revolution in optics. “Incandescent light bulbs created the first revolution, pulling humanity out of darkness,” says Bagnato, chairman of the Optics and Photonics Research Center (CEPOF), one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) at FAPESP. Next, he says, laser arrived, and with it a new form of light emission. “Today, we are in the LED era, which is expanding the possibilities for optical applications both in communication and lighting,” says Professor Bagnato.

How to regulate corporations
For his analysis of the market power of large firms,  French economist Jean Tirole, 61, was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. He received the award for his research into how large corporations should be regulated to protect consumers. “Jean Tirole has made important theoretical research contributions in a number of areas, but most of all he has clarified how to understand and regulate industries with a few powerful firms,”  according to the Swedish Academy’s press release. A social sciences researcher at Toulouse 1 Capitole University, France, he demonstrated that, theoretically, some policy rules such as capping prices for monopolies and prohibiting cooperation between competitors to avoid cartels may work well under certain conditions, but may do more harm than good under others. His analysis of firms with market power provides a unified theory that shows governments how to deal with mergers or cartels and how to regulate monopolies. The French economist believes that regulation of competition should be carefully adapted to every industry’s specific conditions.

Kailash Satyarthi from India and Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan: recognized for their work to combat violence and promote education for children and young adults. Patrick Modiano is the eleventh Frenchman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature with a novel that touches on themes related to memory, identity and guilt

BBC WORLD SERVICE; RUSSELL WATKINS / DEPA RTMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT; CATHERINE HELIE / GALLIMARDKailash Satyarthi (right) from India and Malala Yousafzai (left) from Pakistan: recognized for their work to combat violence and promote education for children and young adults. Patrick Modiano (center) is the eleventh Frenchman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature with a novel that touches on themes related to memory, identity and guilt BBC WORLD SERVICE; RUSSELL WATKINS / DEPA RTMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT; CATHERINE HELIE / GALLIMARD

Memory and combating violence
In addition to the prizes for science and economics, winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature were announced. Author Patrick Modiano, 69, became the eleventh Frenchman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to the prize committee, he was chosen for his sensitivity in dealing with themes like memory and oblivion, and for broaching the topic of the Nazi occupation, which was the background for several of his more than 30 novels. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Malala Yousafzai, a 17-year-old Pakistani woman, and to an engineer from India, Kailash Satyarthi, 60. Both were recognized for their work to combat violence against children and young adults and to ensure their right to education.

Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize
Every September, in Sanders Theater at Harvard University, about a thousand people attend a ceremony for the most eccentric prize in science. It is called the Ig Nobel Prize, and it highlights research topics that appear to be a joke and “are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology,” according to the journal Annals of Improbable Research, which since 1991 has organized the ceremony. The Ig Nobel in Physics was awarded to a group of researchers in Japan who studied why banana skins are slippery. Their work, published in the journal Tribology Online, measured the friction between a shoe, a banana skin and the floor. In the Neuroscience category, a group of Chinese and Canadian researchers using magnetic resonance imaging won for analyzing what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. The Psychology Prize recognized the contribution from an article published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, which investigated the relationship between the habit of staying up late and the likelihood of becoming a psychopath. In the Public Health category, researchers from four countries won for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat. The Ig Nobel in Biology was awarded to researchers in Germany, the Czech Republic and Zambia for documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with the Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines. The article was published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology. The Economics Prize was awarded to Italy’s National Institute of Statistics for including revenues from prostitution, smuggling and other illegal activities in calculating the size of its economy. The Medicine Prize went to researchers in India and the United States who demonstrated the effectiveness of using strips of cured pork to treat uncontrollable nosebleeds. Researchers from Norway, the United States, Canada and Germany won the Ig Arctic Science Prize for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears. Spanish researchers won the Nutrition Prize: they tested the use of bacteria found in infant feces in the fermentation of sausage.