STORM Pioneer Wins One of Six $3M Breakthrough Prizes

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The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its sponsors — Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki — announced the recipients of their 2019 prizes on Oct. 17, 2018.

Xiaowei Zhuang has won a US$3-million Breakthrough prize in life sciences for her work on microscopy. Courtesy of Cheryl Senter/HHMI.
Xiaowei Zhuang has won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in life sciences for her work on STORM microscopy. Courtesy of Cheryl Senter/HHMI.

The inventor of a “superresolution” microscopy technique that biologists are using to reveal the hidden molecular structures of cells is one of six $3 million winners of this year’s Breakthrough Prizes — the most lucrative awards in science and mathematics.

Lead inventor and biophysicist Xiaowei Zhuang at Harvard University was awarded one of four prizes in the life sciences for developing stochastic optical-reconstruction microscopy — known as STORM — just over a decade ago. Zhuang’s technique was one of the first to break a fundamental resolution limit of conventional light microscopy and is now used widely in the biology community. STORM employs switchable fluorescent molecules to smash the boundaries imposed by the diffraction limit of traditional microscopes. The result: ultrahigh-resolution images of molecules and cellular structures 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. With STORM, her lab has discovered previously unknown cellular structures, such as a periodic membrane skeleton in neurons in the brain.

The Breakthrough Prize for fundamental physics was awarded to Charles Kane and Eugene Mele at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for their work predicting the existence of a type of exotic material known as a topological insulator.

Three other life-sciences awards were also announced. C. Frank Bennett of Ionis Pharmaceuticals in Carlsbad, Calif., and Adrian Krainer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York were recognized for developing an effective therapy to silence the gene that causes neurodegenerative spinal muscular atrophy in children.

Angelika Amon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) won for determining how an abnormal number of chromosomes can disrupt cell repair, leading to consequences such as Down syndrome or miscarriage.

HHMI-investigator Zhijian Chen at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was awarded a prize for discovering the DNA-sensing enzyme cGAS, which is involved in triggering immune and autoimmune responses.

Vincent Lafforgue of the French national research council, the CNRS, in Grenoble, France, received the Breakthrough Prize for mathematics for his contributions to the Langlands program.

The 2019 Breakthrough Prize recipients will be recognized at the seventh annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, known as the “Oscars of Science,” hosted by acclaimed actor, producer, and philanthropist Pierce Brosnan, on Sunday, Nov. 4, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and broadcast live on the National Geographic television channel.

Published: October 2018
BusinessResearch & TechnologyBiophotonicsMicroscopySTORMAmericaseducationHarvardMITUniversity of PennsylvaniaCNRSUniversity of Texas at DallasSergey BrinPriscilla ChanMark ZuckerbergMa HuatengYuri and Julia MilnerAnne WojcickiRapidScan

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