Nobel Prizes 2014


The Nobel Prizes for 2014 were announced recently and Alanna O Shea discusses the research done by the winners in chemistry, physics and medicine and the importance of their discoveries.

It may seem like the Nobel Prizes are awarded to the smartest people in the world but the prizes are not an intelligence contest. The prizes are actually awarded based on whose work has benefited mankind the most. This year’s Nobel Laureates in the sciences have certainly contributed to making the world a better place.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for their work in improving microscopy. Microscopes became widely used in the 1600s and allowed scientists to observe the complex world around us in a way they never had before. There was a limit to what scientists could see, this being determined by the acuity of the microscopes. According to the scientist Ernst Abbe, the optical microscope would never yield a resolution better than 0.2 micrometres or 0.2 millionths of a meter. This meant there was little improvement in the resolution of optical microscopes for hundreds of years until the work of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. It is important to note that electron microscopes have offered much greater resolutions than optical microscopes for many years. The expertise and time required to use electron microscopes however, means many researchers cannot use them in their work. Many of the new techniques pioneered by this year’s prizewinners will be widely applicable to scientists that require super-resolution in their work.

The scientists’ work used fluorescent molecules to create the new discipline called nanoscopy, which is microscopy but on an unbelievably small scale. The prizewinners developed two different techniques which nanoscopy relies on. One of the techniques uses the switching on and off of fluorescent molecules to form a picture of an object. The scientists have already used it to study nerve synapses and cell division in embryos.

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura. These physicists also solved a long-standing problem in their field. For years scientists have strived to make LED lamps as they would be more environmentally friendly and longer lasting than their current incandescent counterparts. In a traditional incandescent bulb, most of the energy is converted into heat and a small amount is converted into light. An LED however, directly converts electrical energy into light which is what results in its efficiency. If you are reading this article online you are probably using LEDs right now as the technology is used to backlight many laptops and mobile phones.

A white LED lamp is made up of diodes of three different colours; red, green, and blue. While red and green diodes have existed for decades, it was not until the 1990s that these Nobel Laureates developed the blue diode, which was the last puzzle piece in producing white light with LEDs.

The laureates developed blue LEDs using gallium nitride as a semiconductor. Semiconductors are materials with a specific electrical conductivity which are the basis of LEDs. Researchers had used gallium nitride as a basis for an LED before and found that the intensity of the light produced was much too weak to be useful. The scientific community had all but given up on using it as a semiconductor. The laureates persevered however, developing their own techniques for using gallium nitride and eventually developed the blue LED.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three scientists this year; John O´Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. Collectively, they discovered what is being called the “internal GPS.” The researchers discovered how the brain encodes where we are in space and also the way in which it allows us to remember how to get from one place to another.

In the 1970s John O’Keefe discovered that a specific nerve cell in a rat’s hippocampus fires when the rat is in one part of a room. When the rat moves to a different area of the room another nerve cell fires. The coordination of the firing of these cells allows the rat to form a map of the room.

In 2005 the husband and wife team of May-Britt and Edvard I. Moser made a further discovery in this area. They discovered another type of nerve cell, known as “grid cells”, which allow rats to position themselves in space. These cells allow rats to continuously update their position based on new information.

The importance of these hippocampal cells is still being uncovered. Current research shows that these types of nerve cells are also found in humans. One of the reasons these cells are so important is that they are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. The spatial confusion which occurs early in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease may be due to damage suffered by these nerve cells in the hippocampus. The work of these scientists may provide a key to helping those suffering from the condition.

One of the Nobel Laureates, John O’Keefe, will be visiting UCD at the end of this month. He will be speaking at the Regan Symposium on Neuroplasticity