Stefan W. Hell: 2014 - Chemistry

Stefan W. Hell

Year & Category

2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (jointly with the Americans Eric Betzig and William E. Moerner)

Prize motivation

“For the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”

At the time of the award he worked at

Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, Germany
German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany

About his research

For well over one hundred years, 200 nanometres (200 millionths of a millimetre) was considered the maximum resolution in optical microscopy. This limit was demonstrated theoretically by the German physicist Ernst Abbe in 1873. His theory was based on the knowledge that light travels in waves. A wave of light has to be diffracted when a microscope focuses on a specific point. The size of this spot is limited to half the wavelength of the employed light, which corresponds to at least 200 nanometres.

Stefan Hell’s STED microscope uses two laser beams to get around this apparently insurmountable diffraction limit. The first laser beam illuminates the molecules under the microscope, and the second beam suppresses the diffused edges that cause a blurring of the overall image. As a result, the microscope is focused on a minute spot – and subsequently a high-resolution picture can be put together from large numbers of these small points.

Stefan Hell’s development is technologically extraordinarily advanced. He already succeeded in filming cellular life processes at nanoresolution in 2008. The direct view inside an organism that STED microscopy allows is of enormous benefit to medicine. For example, it makes it possible to depict and compare proteins that are target structures for cancer therapies during the course of the disease. In neurology, the STED method offers a means of gaining insights into diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism and Parkinson's.

Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry