Joachim Frank

Prof. Dr. Joachim Frank

Nationality
USA 
Institution
Columbia University, New York, NY, USA 
Award
2017 
Discipline
Chemistry 
Co-recipients
Jacques Dubochet, Richard Henderson 
Motivation
"for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution"

Biography on the Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize

CURRICULUM VITAE

A picture is worth a thousand words, and that is certainly true in biochemistry, where molecules can now be frozen and their activity recorded visually for the first time, not only explaining how life works at a cellular level but aiding the development of targeted pharmaceuticals and other treatments. The process of capturing these images is cryo-electron microscopy, and for its development Joachim Frank, Jacques Dubochet and Richard Henderson received the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Electron microscopes (EM) use a beam of electrons to examine samples at levels of magnification and resolution far greater than conventional microscopes, visualising their atomic structure. However, the beam is so powerful that it can destroy biological matter. Weakening the beam reduces clarity, and EM requires samples to be held in a vacuum, in which they deteriorate as their water content evaporates.

The three laureates began their research in the 1970s. Henderson used EM to capture the structure of a protein forming highly ordered crystals in a membrane. Frank developed computational methods to determine the structures of unordered, single molecules, and Dubochet developed a way of protecting the sample by freezing water into a smooth ‘glaze’, rather than crystalline ice.

Joachim Frank was born in September 1940 in Siegen, Germany. As a boy he performed experiments at home and built AM radios. He studied physics at the University of Freiburg, progressing to the University of Munich where he considered the possibility of using electrons to study molecules. He gained his PhD at the Technical University of Munich, but it was a visiting scientist’s carelessness that gave him his next clue by jogging the electron microscope, creating blurred images of carbon films. Viewing the images by optical diffraction, Frank saw striped patterns that he realised indicated the high precision with which images of molecules could be aligned in the computer by cross-correlation. 

After gaining his PhD in 1970, Frank gained a Harkness fellowship that allowed him to visit labs of his choice in the USA. He picked the Jet Propulsion lab at Caltech before joining Bob Glaeser, one of the cryo-EM pioneers, at the University of California, Berkeley, and finished his US tour at Cornell University. Finding no work in Germany, in 1973 he moved to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, where he worked on the effects of partial coherence and, among other problems, calculated the minimum electron dose to ensure precision of alignment without damaging the molecule.

In 1975, Frank was invited to join the Wadsworth laboratory in Albany, NY, where he and his students combined electron images into 3D reconstructions, using the ribosome to test his methods. Frank joined the University of Albany in 1985 and the following year was made Professor of Biomedical Sciences. During a sabbatical in 1987, he returned to Cambridge to work with Richard Henderson. 

As the ribosome images became sharper with improved programmes, he decided to study the mechanism of protein synthesis, or mRNA translation. His efforts were boosted during a second sabbatical in 1994 at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, funded by a Humboldt Fellowship. Thanks to precisely-timed samples, Frank has been able to create frame-by-frame representations of how mRNA and tRNA and various protein factors interact with a ribosome. From 1998 until recently, Frank has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. In 2008, he joined Columbia University as Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Professor of Biological Sciences. Away from work, Frank writes poetry, fiction and is a photographer.

Press Release "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017" by The Royal Swedish Academy of Science

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