Stefan Hell, Eric Betzig and William Moerner were rewarded for their work in using fluorescence to improve microscopes to the point that they can be used to see individual molecules inside living cells.

“Due to their achievements the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Revolutionary Microscope Wins Nobel Prize For Chemistry

Revolutionary microscope: Disproving long-held beliefs

In 1873 scientists concluded that there was a limit as to what could be seen through an optical microscope. Ernst Abbe stated that resolution could never be better than 0.2 micrometers, which is 500 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The prize was awarded for work in smashing this perceived limit, entering science into a new age of “nanoscopy”. The technology is now widely used for a variety of purposes, including following individual proteins to enable a better understanding of diseases like Parkinson’s, or tracking the development of fertilized eggs.

“This is very, very important to understanding how the cell works and understanding what goes wrong if the cell is diseased,” Hell stated.

Hell is director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, and said that he was “totally surprised” by the prize. His co-winner Betzig, who works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, United States, said he was stunned by the news. Moerner is a professor at Stanford University.

Interdisciplinary science

Inventor of dynamite Alfred Nobel gave his name to the prize, which has been awarded for achievements in science, literature and peace since 1901.

Yesterday the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”.

Both the physics and the chemistry prize involve the use of light, a fact which The Royal Society of Chemistry’s president, Professor Dominic Tildesley claimed “highlight(s) the truly interdisciplinary nature of science.”