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Last week, the recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prizes were announced. We take a closer look at the winners of the Physiology and Chemistry Awards, whose breakthroughs change the way we study sleep, and allow us to look at microscopic biological systems in a new way.

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As science fans, you probably heard that this year’s Nobel Prizes were announced last week!

And if you’re a regular SciShow Space viewer, then you’re probably familiar with the research on gravitational waves that won the physics prize. But the work being honored in the fields of physiology and chemistry deserve some love too, so let’s dive right in.

The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine went to Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbach, and Michael W. Young for their work on biological clocks. Many living things, including humans, have internal clocks that help them stay synced with the rotation of the Earth.

You can see this in flowers that open and close at specific times of the day, or animals that become more active at sunrise and sunset. All sorts of human bodily functions, from your metabolism to your hormones, fluctuate over the course of a day according to this internal timer. And for a long time, no one was exactly sure how it all worked.

In the 1980s and 1990s, though, these scientists isolated a series of genes in fruit flies that started to clear things up. Previous work had identified a gene named 'period' in fruit flies that seemed to throw their daily behavioral cycles out of whack when it was mutated. And Hall, Rosbach, and Young managed to isolate and figure out the DNA sequence of this gene.

The gene encodes a protein, called PER. And Hall and Rosbach found that PER builds up in every single cell at night and then gets broken down during the day. Later, they discovered a couple more fruit fly genes that help regulate this daily PER cycle.

Young found a gene named 'timeless' that produces a protein that binds with PER and lets it enter the cell nucleus, where all the DNA is stored. Here, the two proteins can interact with the period gene, stopping it from producing more PER. Scientists call this a negative feedback loop, where the output of a process causes the process itself to slow down.

Young also found a third gene, called double time, that encodes a protein that slows down the buildup of PER. By controlling the switch between PER production and breakdown, 'double time' allows the timing of the feedback loop to adjust to the planet’s 24 hour cycle. These clock proteins tell all sorts of other genes in cells to dial their activity up and down, which in turn affects what different organs are doing in something’s whole body.

Now, the research to identify these genes may have been done in fruit flies, but the same process is at work with slightly different molecules in most organisms -- including humans. These discoveries have helped spur a whole new field of research of circadian biology, which influences our health and wellness in ways we’re only starting to understand. In chemistry, meanwhile, the Nobel Committee awarded this year’s prize to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson.

Over the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, they developed a technology that let scientists freeze organic molecules and examine them up close, called cryo-electron microscopy. And this technique has helped us reveal how some of the smallest processes of life work. Electron microscopes can theoretically be used to image tiny things that light microscopes can’t, like cell structures or proteins.

But, in the 1930s, they only used to be good for looking at things like the structures of crystals or dead cells. There are a couple different types of electron microscopy, but they both rely on a powerful beam of electrons shooting at or through a sample to make an image. That beam can destroy organic material, so you couldn’t really look at whole proteins or viruses, for instance.

These microscopes also need to be in a vacuum to work, because the electron beam can run into gas molecules floating around. But in vacuums, any liquid water around biological molecules has room to escape and become water vapor, which makes cells break down. These three researchers have made it possible to use this powerful technology to study the molecular machinery of life.

First, Henderson figured out how to use a weaker electron beam that wouldn’t destroy a cell sample, although the images had a lower resolution. Not only that, but he realized he could coat a protein sample he was studying in a glucose solution, which protected it enough to keep it from drying out in a vacuum. Even though this technique made fuzzy images, Frank developed a way to combine multiple fuzzy 2D images taken from different angles to produce a sharp 3D model.

Frank’s other contributions came in refining the computer programs used to process microscopy images. The final breakthrough came when Dubochet found a way to freeze different kinds of samples in water to fully protect them from the vacuum’s dehydrating effects. Chunky ice crystals don’t work because they mess with the microscope’s electron beam… but the ice you throw in your lemonade isn’t the only form of frozen water.

Using liquid nitrogen at around negative 196 degrees Celsius to cool ethane, Dubochet was able to plunge water molecules inside and freeze it so rapidly that it formed a smooth glass-like solid called vitrified water. This form of water lets electrons pass through as easily as liquid water, but it keeps cells frozen in time and intact, even in a vacuum. Today, these techniques let scientists map receptors in cell membranes that sense temperature, identify proteins that let bacteria resist antibiotics, and peek at the structure of viruses to look for new ways to target them with drugs.

Among /many/ other applications. So congrats to all of this year’s Nobel honorees from all of us at SciShow -- your work helps introduce all of us to the wonders of the universe, massive and microscopic. And thanks to all of you for watching this episode of SciShow!

If you haven’t seen our videos on gravitational waves, you can check them out on SciShow Space. And if you just want more of all kinds of science, we’re at