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Three win chemistry Nobel for super-zoom microscopes

STOCKHOLM — Three researchers won a Nobel Prize on Wednesday for giving microscopes much sharper vision than was thought possible, allowing scientists to peer into living cells with unprecedented detail to seek the roots of disease.

The chemistry prize was awarded to U.S. researchers Eric Betzig and William Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell. They found ways to use molecules that glow on demand to overcome what was considered a fundamental limitation for optical microscopes.

Betzig, 54, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Va. Hell, 51, is director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, Germany, and also works at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Moerner, 61, is a professor at Stanford University in California.

Their work, done independently and dating to the 1980s, led to two techniques that were first demonstrated in 2000 and 2006.

Previously, a calculation published in 1873 was thought to define the limit of how tiny a detail could be revealed by optical microscopes.

"As recently as 15 years ago, it was believed to be theoretically impossible to break this barrier," said Nobel committee member Claes Gustafsson. He called the laureates' work "a revolution."

Their advance is "a window into the cell," said Catherine Lewis of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md. "You can see … molecules moving around inside the cell."

The research has allowed scientists to study diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's at a molecular level, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in giving the $1.1 million award jointly to the three for "development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."

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