U.S., Swiss, and Japanese researchers have won this year's Nobel chemistry prize for developing ways to identify and analyze the structure of large biological molecules such as proteins.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has cited the work of John Fenn of Virginia Commonwealth University, Koichi Tanaka of the Shimadzu Corporation in Kyoto, and Kurt Wuthrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Mr. Fenn says he is thunderstruck by the recognition.
"It's just like being struck by lightning, you know. The odds are so infinitesimal that you never really think you have a serious chance, I'm still in a state of shock," he said.
Mr. Fenn and Mr. Tanaka will share half the $1 million prize for their work in developing a technique called mass spectroscopy to analyze large protein molecules. The academy said that previously, the tool could identify only small proteins.
An expert on the technique at the University of Manchester in England, Simon Gaskell, says the work is important because most proteins are large.
"So if you want to analyze the intact, functional biological molecule, we really need to have a technique that is capable of analyzing molecules of that size," he explained. " Otherwise we have to go through essentially an artificial degradation of those molecules before we can begin to analyze them. If we degrade the molecules, we lose structural information, we lose the ability to relate structure to function."
But mass spectroscopy, as useful as it is, can only reveal what the protein is and how much of it is present. Another chemical analysis technique called nuclear magnetic resonance gives information about the three-dimensional structure and dynamics of proteins.
For furthering the development of this tool, Kurt Wuthrich will receive the other half of the chemistry
The Swedish committee says the three scientists' work has helped reveal the function of proteins in cells, leading to increased understanding of life processes and revolutionizing the development of new drugs.