William Moerner quickly dabbed a cheap orange highlighter in a tube of water. Although the water remained clear, it turned a neon shade of yellow when the Stanford University scientist shone a green laser through the liquid. It was a simple demonstration of a complex research project that earned Moerner the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Moerner told a gathering at the USU on Monday that even the small number of molecules from the orange marker were enough to interact with light, which has enabled scientists to delve deeper into the inner workings of cells at the molecular level. The florescent light helps visualize a molecule.
Scientists can now see how cells work and divide, and how ribosomes manufacture proteins. They can also better understand DNA and RNA, plus have insight to various diseases.
“They (molecules) are like little machines,” Moerner said at the 38th Nobel Laureate Lecture. “They do have partners, but they work on their own.”
Moerner, along with Eric Betzig of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, shared the Nobel prize for their roles in developing the microscopy techniques that make the molecular research possible.
“We are just normal people but we’ve done something significant,” Moerner said. He said, for years, scientists thought it was “impossible to detect single molecules.”
Then in the late 1990s, Moerner and Betzig created a method in which fluorescence in individual molecules is steered by light. An image of very high resolution is achieved by combining images in which different molecules are turned on and off. This allows scientists to track processes occurring inside the living cells.
He likened the process to finding fireflies in tree branches. He said if you watch them flicker on and off, track the activation of lights then put the dots together, it would give a picture of how super resolution reconstruction works in revealing individual molecules.
Moerner said working at the ultimate single molecule limit has helped solve complex problems in chemistry, physics and biology worldwide.
“Super resolution provides an amazing window beyond the diffraction limit,” he said.
Monday’s lecture was presented by the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics Student Council, the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics and CSULB Associated Students, Inc.