This week in science (#42) Special Edition: Nobel Prizes

Physics: Efficient Blue Light-Emitting Diodes

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2014 was awarded jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, three engineers responsible “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LED) which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”. While the Nobel Prize winners are chosen in recognition of being the first to discover a technology, the honor is just as heavily weighted by humanitarian impact. The LED that Nakamura and colleagues invented is 20 times more efficient than the incandescent light-bulb. Given that almost 25 percent of global energy expenditure is in lighting, advances in LED technology are having a tremendous impact environmentally speaking. The international effort to phase-out incandescents demonstrates the obvious importances of advances in lighting technology. Further, with 1.4 billion people still lacking access to electricity, solar-powered LEDs allow these communities to spend money on food instead of fuel. The impact of this research is enourmous, both economically and from a society point-of-view.

Isamu Akasaki (85), Nagoya University, Japan
Hiroshi Amano (54), Nagoya University, Japan
Shuji Nakamura (60), University of California Santa Barbara, USA
Read more : University of California Press Release
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Medicine: The Brain’s Internal GPS

John O’Keefe and Edvard and May-Britt Moser will receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their collective efforts toward unraveling spatial memory and navigation within the mammalian brain. Their research advances understanding debilitating effects of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, where spatial memory is often lost first. Further, this may deepen our knowledge of thinking, planning, and memory processes.
O’Keefe’s 1971 discovery of place cells in the hippocampus not only demonstrated that nerve cells differentially respond at various points in a specific environment, but also elevated the hippocampus from a brain region vaguely tied to memory to a concrete conception as the major hub for spatial, short, and long-term memory formation. The second “brain GPS” breakthrough came from the Mosers, a married couple (the second to win the Nobel in Medicine) who studied under O’Keefe as visiting scholars at UCL. They discovered grid cells, located in the entorhinal cortex, a structure that interfaces with the hippocampus. Grid cells, it turns out, fire at regular positions when a mammal is moving around an environment, forming an internally gridded “map”, even in darkness. The interplay between these two sets of nerve cells allows for the storage of environments’ spatial information and, crucially, navigation within those environments.

John O’Keefe (75), University College London, UK
May-Britt Moser (51), Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
Edvard Moser (52), Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway

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Read more : New York Times

Chemistry: A Revolution in Resolution

Three physicists (Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and William Moerner) received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work that side-steps a fundamental rule of optics, makes nanoscopy of microscopy, and had cutting-edge results rejected by both Nature and Science. Their work is rapidly improving, among other things, humanity’s understanding of the molecular states of diseases, no doubt leading to new treatments and cures.
Known as Super-Resolution Fluorescence Microscopy, it combines two techniques to work around Ernst Abbe’s 1873 conclusion that diffraction limits optical resolution. The first, experimentally reported in 1999, is Hell’s stimulated emission depletion (STED), which allowed a 2-fold improvement by shifting the fluorescence of the fluorophores surrounging a spot where desired fluorescence occurs. The contributions of Betzig and Moerner allow for single-molecule microscopy with photo-switchable fluorophores: fluorescent molecules that can be turned “on” and “off” for few-to-single-molecule readings (for a further 20x improvement). These two concepts allow for \(<\)10nm-scanning of a field, producing a layered final image with functional nanoscale resolution - on the scale of individual molecules.
These revolutionary methods have led to unprecedented advances in a wide range of fields. On the same day as the Prize announcement, for instance, the dynamics of HIV cellular-entry was reported.

Eric Betzig (54), Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, VA, USA
Stefan Hell (51), Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen and German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany
William Moerner (61), Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
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