Field of Science

Cryo-electron microscopy, scientific convergence and - again - why we need to fund basic science

Cryo-electron microscopy has won the Nobel Prize for chemistry this year, and while I did not expect it to make it quite so fast, nobody can deny the importance of the technique. As I wrote two years ago, it's a prime example of a tool-driven scientific revolution. And it has charted completely new vistas in the determination of the structure of biological molecules; entire protein assemblies, viruses, proteins too unruly to be symmetrically crystallized using x-ray crystallography.

But it's also an example of what we can call scientific and technological convergence. Often when a prize is awarded for a discovery or invention, it makes it sound like that discovery or invention stands on its own. But as the saying goes, no scientific advance is an island.

One of the most important things to realize about cryo-EM is how many fields had to co-evolve for it to become a reality. There was the long development of microscopy, of course, but two other inventions were absolutely critical in making the technique possible: detectors and computers. Computing power enabled by Moore's Law and cheap hardware combined with key advances in image-processing software have revolutionized a lot of fields in the last few years, from facial recognition to photography. 

And cryo-EM is not an exception. Joachim Frank who is one of this year's winners made his mark in the 80s and 90s by developing image processing software and mathematical techniques that could combine 2D microscopy images into a composite 3D picture. As important as the image processing was the development of detectors; one key invention made in 2013 that allowed much better signal-to-noise ratio and spatial resolution really seems to have pushed the method into a new realm of possibility (it's worth noting that a Nobel Prize was awarded for CCDs a few years ago - another very important technological advance). Finally, there had to be a way to introduce water into the experimental setup; this seemingly mundane process took quite some time to, well, crystallize.

So, computers, electronics and lab technique: all scientific tools, modern versions of string-and-sealing-wax science, all enabling groundbreaking new chemistry and biology. It's quite clear that the failure to advance on any of these fronts would have crippled the development of cryo-EM. 

Why is it important to realize this? For two reasons. Firstly, it really underscores how no scientific advance stands by itself, how it piggybacks on not just other developments in the same field but on those in other fields. The Wright brothers' rickety plane was a marvel of their innovative thinking, but it was also a marvel of, among other fields, materials science, aerodynamics and mechanical engineering.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly for our times, this recognition shows why it's crucial to support and fund basic science in multiple areas because it's only their co-evolution that can lead to an invention like cryo-EM. Simply funding the 'hottest' fields is not enough, because even the hottest fields have emerged from the nexus of several other fields. Scientific convergence is the answer to the question perpetually asked by lawmakers: "What is this good for?". A few decades ago they could have asked that question about some esoteric mathematical image processing technique, they could have asked it about new software, and they could have asked it about new ways to freeze biological samples. By themselves these were interesting phenomena, but nobody could have predicted their convergence in cryo-EM. That is why funding research across the board is so important, because it's all connected.

We have no idea whether politicians in the current climate will understand this interdependence of different fields that makes a major scientific advance possible, but a Nobel Prize for cryo-EM should at least help us make our case.


  1. It's starting to feel like the Nobel committee is making some kind of statement by deliberately not choosing Goodenough. Why, I have no idea...

  2. Unfortunately, many of our current politicians (primarily the religious right ones) are purposefully ignorant of science and the value it brings to humanity. These are the same politicians who rail against modernity while using their science driven device and the science driven Internet to do so. It's also unfortunate that these politicians happen to be the most likely to not acknowledge or recognize irony and hypocrisy.


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