2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded to Prof. Joachim Frank

October 04, 2017

Columbia University congratulates Joachim Frank, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and of biological sciences, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017, shared with Richard Henderson and Jacques Dubochet “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.”

It was a case of the dog—or, rather, the puppy—that didn’t bark.

For the past few months, Joachim Frank, a biophysicist at Columbia, and his wife, Carol Saginaw have been awakened before dawn by their energetic rescue puppy, Daisy. But on Oct. 4, Daisy was still asleep at 5:18 a.m. when the phone rang.

Frank cautioned his wife not to assume it was a crank call. “I knew the sensitivity of the date, and sure enough it was a Swedish accent and everything that followed,” he said.

What followed was the news that he had shared the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry with two other scientists for inventing a new and more powerful method of capturing three-dimensional images of biological molecules in atomic detail.

Frank and his fellow winners, Richard Henderson of Cambridge University and Jacques Dubochet at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, developed the field of cryo-electron microscopy, in which powerful electron microscopes are used to more clearly study frozen biomolecules.

When molecules are frozen, electron microscopes can reveal the fuzzy two-dimensional outlines of individual molecules. Frank devised methods that turn thousands of such images into a finely detailed three-dimensional representation.

Increasing numbers of structural biologists are now using cryo-electron microscopy to visualize larger and more complex molecules at atomic resolution than possible with older techniques. Scientists harness these three-dimensional snapshots to understand how specific molecules cause human disease, and how to design more targeted drugs.

Frank, 77, joined the Columbia faculty in 2008. A professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biophysics as well as the department of biological sciences, Frank is the second member of the latter department to share the chemistry prize recently. Professor Martin Chalfie is a 2008 Nobel laureate for pioneering work on green fluorescent protein and development of its use in research.

At a press conference in Butler Library just hours after he learned of his prize, Frank said: “This is an extraordinary day for me; a touching and humbling experience because I know that some other new things have been discovered… the odds of anybody winning are very long.”

He then thanked his students.

“I wouldn’t be here without the incredible support of the very gifted students I have had the privilege to have with me and be able to train,” he said. “My research associates have all contributed pieces of this immense puzzle.”

He added that his move to Columbia nine years ago “was a milestone for me, and I’m very grateful to my colleagues, to the dean and the president for making this all possible.”

Lee C. Bollinger, president of the University, said that the prize—the 83rd Nobel awarded to Columbia professors or alumni—is “an affirmation of what we do in the academic work of fundamental research, where a person who lives by the desire to understand something in the world is driven to do that, selflessly, and where new knowledge is developed that has a profound effect on humanity.”

Earlier this year, Frank was awarded the Wiley Prize for innovation in techniques that advance scientific discovery, and in 2014 he received the Benjamin Franklin Medal—both for the research that brought him the Nobel.

Born in Germany in 1940, Frank took to science at an early age and was deconstructing and reassembling AM radios in his teens. He studied physics in high school and majored in the subject at the University of Freiburg. He received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the Technical University of Munich.

Frank spent several years in the U.S. conducting postdoctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley and on a fellowship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He returned to Germany but found no jobs there, so he spent two years at Cambridge and then joined the Wadsworth Center, a research arm of the New York State Department of Health and the University of Albany. He was there when Columbia recruited him.

A writer of published poetry and short stories as well as three unpublished novels, Frank is also a photographer who has had a number of exhibitions.

“I’m very visually oriented I see patterns, I see structures,” he said in an interview posted on the Nobel website. “I see patterns very, very fast in a background.”

A recording of Frank discussing his win moments after he learned of it can now be found on the Nobel Prize website. It is accompanied by a picture of Daisy, the now-famous rescue puppy, with a photo credit by the new laureate.