Richard Henderson
Richard Henderson © Nobel Media AB 2017


Richard Henderson wins 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

The British Council is delighted that the scientist Richard Henderson has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. 

Henderson shares the honour with his partners Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank from the Cambridge-based Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC-LMB) Structural Studies Division. The team were awarded for their work in cryo-electron microscopy (using a type of microscope where a beam of electrons creates a high resolution image of a rapidly frozen specimen) to determine the structure of biomolecules in solution.

Henderson said: "I am delighted for everybody in the field that the Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to acknowledge the success of cryo-EM.

"I am particularly pleased that Jacques Dubochet has been recognised as the key person who kick-started the field in the early 1980s with his method of rapid freezing to make a specimen of amorphous ice, a crucial advance."

Who is Richard Henderson?

Richard Henderson is not quite a household-name - yet. However, the great impact of his research on our lives today is well recognised in the scientific field, as his Nobel Prize shows.

He was born and educated in Scotland, and completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge before moving to Yale University. Henderson then returned to the MRC-LMB, a research facility that aims to understand important biological processes in atoms, molecules, cells and organisms. Some of our most important recent advances in human health have come from here. 

What has he discovered? 

Henderson’s best known discovery was in 1973 when he was the first person to determine the structure of 2D crystals in a membrane protein called bacteriorhodopsin. He did this by using electron microscopy, working with the British neuroscientist, Nigel Unwin. 

Help, I’m not a scientist! What does this actually mean?

Together with colleagues, Henderson has since helped to advance the technique of electron microscopy as an alternative to the X-ray based techniques used to determinthe atomic structure of proteins. The technique has allowed scientists to see the structure of large, flexible and complex proteins. These were impossible to analyse using traditional X-ray techniques. 

The team of Henderson, Dubochet and Frank then realised that they  could use electron microscopy to ‘read’ a signal from randomly dispersed molecules. This then allowed them to map the detailed structures of atoms. The technique led to the development of better detectors for electron microscopes and more advanced software to analyse the images. 

The  discoveries of Henderson and his colleagues have led to huge advances within the field of molecular biology, and for this alone they should be commended. As a result, there have been many steps forward in imaging techniques – better microscopes, enhanced electron detectors and improved computer programs for calculating the structure from the images. These provide crucial insights into biological functioning. They allow us to develop new diagnostic or therapeutic tools. There is clear evidence that they can help to improve global health.

The MRC-LMB: a pretty special place to be a scientist

Henderson thinks so too – and he’s worked there for nearly half a century! 

In a recent interview with Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media, Henderson explained that 2017 is the 105th year that the MRC has supported medical, biomedical structural work. 

‘They've got a lot of experience in managing groups, units or institutes,’ Henderson highlighted. ‘(So) they've been quite bold in terms of supporting new ideas, and actually closing down other areas that have fulfilled their purpose.’ 

Henderson also joins a number of other Nobel laureates who have worked for the LMB. In fact, the work of its scientists has been recognised with no fewer than ten Nobel prizes! These include seven in the field of chemistry and three for physiology or medicine. The awards celebrate key advances in primary scientific research and pioneering techniques for molecular biology.

Is this Henderson’s first major award?

Certainly not. Henderson has been presented with many awards for his work, both as an individual and as a team, and holds many prestigious positions. He received the Gjonnes Medal in electron crystallography from the International Union of Crystallography; he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences; and he was Director of the LMB from 1996-2006 – and these are just some examples.