Two of the three recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry were formerly affiliated with UC Berkeley.
Joachim Frank, who conducted research at the UC Berkeley Donner Laboratory in the 1970s, and Richard Henderson, who was a visiting scientist at the campus’s Miller Institute in 1993, share the prize with Jacques Dubochet for developing a technique that produces high-resolution 3D images of biomolecules. According to Frank, modern medicine is dependent on these images.
The scientists developed a technique called cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM. Before cryo-EM, certain living molecules could not be photographed without being altered or damaged.
Edward Twomey, a current graduate student researcher under Frank at Columbia University, said the ability to take images of unaltered biomolecules offers new insight into human physiology as a whole.
“It has really revolutionized our understanding,” Twomey said.
After graduating from the Technical University of Munich in 1970, Frank received the Harkness Fellowship, which allowed him to visit three labs in the United States, including UC Berkeley’s Donner Lab, as a postdoctoral researcher. At the Donner Lab, he conducted research under Robert Glaeser, now a campus professor emeritus of biochemistry. According to Glaeser, Frank’s experiences in the three labs presented him with a wide range of cutting-edge knowledge in electron microscopy.
Frank said that while his experience at UC Berkeley was not “instrumental” in the development of the work that ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize, it was the first time he was exposed to the “democratic” nature of an American lab, where the voice of the student was valued.
“It was an exciting time. Berkeley was just past Haight-Ashbury time, so there was a lot of anti-Vietnam activity,” Frank said. “It was part of an environment that gave me additional inspiration.”
Wah Chiu, now a Stanford professor of bioengineering, formerly worked at the Donner Lab under Frank as a campus graduate student. Later, in 1987, Chiu collaborated with Frank at the University of Cambridge, where, according to Glaeser, they developed the foundation of the research that eventually led to the Nobel Prize.
“Joachim is a very rigorous individual, and he is also very vivid and clear in expressing very complex ideas,” Chiu said.
In spring 1993, Glaeser nominated Henderson to come to UC Berkeley as a visiting professor of molecular and cell biology at the Miller Institute. According to Glaeser, Henderson’s visit to UC Berkeley, although brief, was productive.
“He was able to put together ideas that he’d been working on and hadn’t really had the time to devote himself to,” Glaeser said.
Frank said winning the Nobel Prize has alleviated a pressure to achieve and will allow him to think more creatively in the future. According to Twomey, there are still many questions to be answered through cryo-EM.
“From here, we can really begin to figure out how the machinery in our cells work,” Twomey said.