Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014 for Max Planck researcher Stefan Hell

Stefan W. Hell, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He shares the prize with Eric Betzig and William E. Moerner.

October 08, 2014

With the award the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honours their pioneering work in the field of ultra-high resolution fluorescence microscopy. Stefan Hell succeeded in radically overcoming the resolution limit of conventional optical microscopes – a breakthrough that has enabled new ground-breaking discoveries in biological and medical research.

"I was sitting in my office when the call from Stockholm reached me. I am enormously gratified that my work and that of my colleagues has received the highest distinction for scientific research", Stefan Hell says. Max Planck President Martin Stratmann congratulated the newly elected Nobel laureate: “This is a wonderful recognition of the pioneering achievements of Stefan Hell. A researcher is recognized who had the courage to overcome obstacles, paving new paths and challenge seemingly incontestable beliefs."  Stefan Hell is the 18th Nobel Prize winner from the Max Planck Society.

With the invention of the STED (Stimulated Emission Depletion) microscopy experimentally realized by Hell in 1999, he has revolutionized light microscopy. Conventional light microscopes reach their resolution limit when two similar objects are closer than 200 nanometers (millionth of a millimetre) to each other because the diffraction of light blurs them to a single image feature. This limit discovered about 130 years ago by Ernst Abbe – and chiseled in stone in a memorial in Jena (Germany) – had been considered an insurmountable hurdle. The same limit by diffraction also applies to fluorescence microscopy which is frequently used in biology and medicine. For biologists and physicians, this meant a massive restriction – because for them, the observation of much smaller structures in living cells is decisive.

The 51-year-old physicist Stefan Hell was the first to radically overcome the resolution limit of light microscopes – with an entirely new concept. STED microscopy, invented and developed by him to application readiness, is the first focused light-microscopy method which is no longer fundamentally limited by diffraction. It allows an up to ten times greater detailed observation in living cells and makes structures visible that are much smaller than 200 nanometres. "Back then I intuitively felt that something has not been thought through thoroughly," Hell recalls.

In order to overcome the phenomenon of light diffraction, he and his team applied a trick. The focal spot of the fluorescence excitation beam is accompanied by a doughnut-shaped "STED beam" that switches off fluorophores at the spot periphery by effectively confining them to the ground state. In contrast, molecules at the doughnut center can dwell in the fluorescence "on" state and fluoresce freely. The resolution is typically improved by up to ten times compared with conventional microscopes, meaning that labelled protein complexes with separation of only 20-50 nanometers can be discerned. As the brightness of the STED beam is increased, the spot in which molecules can fluoresce is further reduced in size. As a consequence, the resolution of the system can be increased, in principle, to molecular dimensions.

By developing special fast recording techniques for the STED microscopy, Hell’s team further succeeded in recording fast movements within living cells. They reduced the exposure time for single images in such a dramatic way that they could film in real-time the movements within living nerve cells with a resolution of 65 to 70 nanometers – a 3 to 4 times better resolution compared to conventional light microscopes.

With his outstanding work Stefan Hell has pushed open a door towards new insights into what happens on the molecular scale of life – a door which was believed for a long time to be non-existent. STED microscopy offers plenty of potential for research on disease or the development of drugs, Hell explains. "If one can directly observe how a drug affects the cell, the development time of new therapeutic agents could be reduced enormously."

About Stefan Hell

Stefan W. Hell (born in 1962) received his doctorate in physics from the University of Heidelberg in 1990, followed by a research stay at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. From 1993 to 1996, he worked as a senior researcher at the University of Turku, Finland, where he developed the principle of STED microscopy. In 1997, he moved to the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen (Germany), where he set up his current research group dedicated to sub-diffraction-resolution microscopy. He was appointed a Max Planck Director in 2002 and currently leads the Department of NanoBiophotonics at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the Department of Optical Nanoscopy at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg (Germany). He is a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society, where his research activities were also supported with private funds from the Max Planck Foundation.  

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