Since the very first microscope revealed a hidden world, countless gradual improvements have exposed ever-deeper layers. This procession of progress eventually led to the electron microscope, able to show the very atoms of materials. But the electron beam – used in place of light – destroyed biological material, limiting its insights to the inert world. Determined to see not just matter, but life, at the finest detail, Richard Henderson – born on this day in 1945 – managed to expose a protein from a plant cell’s membrane to a reduced electron beam and picture its structure according to how the electrons bounced off (left, from 1975). With 15 years more work and the advent of cryo-electron microscopy, which freezes samples to shield from the electrons, he determined the structure at the ultimate resolution. In the process he gave the world a new viewpoint on life, and earned a share of a 2017 Nobel Prize.
Written by Anthony Lewis
BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences the website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biomedicine. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.