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Revolutionising the way we see molecules

Richard Henderson, a molecular biologist and biophysicist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), was the first to successfully work out the threedimensional structure of a membrane protein in a cell. For this work Henderson was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, shared with biophysicists Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank.

Working at the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Henderson collaborated with Nigel Unwin to generate the first threedimensional image of the membrane protein bacteriorhodopsin using electron microscopy in 1975. Electron microscopes use a beam of electrons to create an image. They are capable of much higher magnifications and resolutions than light microscopes, allowing much smaller objects to be visualised in finer detail. However, historically there have been problems imaging biomolecules without damaging them or causing significant changes to their structure.

Over the next 15 years, Henderson strived to solve the technical issues associated with producing high-resolution images of biomolecules by electron microscopy. This led him to make significant breakthroughs in revolutionising cryo-electron microscopy, a technique developed by Jacques Dubochet and colleagues in the 1980s involving rapidly cooling biomolecules before imaging them, trapping them in their natural shape. Henderson applied this technique and became the first to determine the atomic structure of one of a group of proteins that are critical for cells to function, but whose atomic structure biologists have struggled to investigate previously.

Henderson’s work to refine the imaging methods for cryo-electron microscopy has paved the way for researchers to determine the structure of complex proteins.

This would not have been possible with X-ray crystallography, the standard method to study the structure of molecules where x-rays are scattered as they pass through samples, creating patterns that can be analysed. Henderson has received many awards for his research contributions and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, and was Director of the LMB from 1996-2006.