On May 27, the Kavli Foundation announced the winners of the 2020 Kavli Prizes in Nanoscience and Neuroscience. Four scientists are sharing the nanoscience prize, and two scientists are sharing the neuroscience prize. Each prize is worth $1 million, which will be divided among the winners.
In the nanoscience category, the Kavli Foundation is honoring Harald Rose of Ulm University and Technical University of Darmstadt; Maximilian Haider of instrument maker Corrected Electron Optical Systems, Heidelberg; Knut Urban of the Jülich Research Center; and Ondrej L. Krivanek of Nion for developing corrective lenses for electron microscopes. These aberration-correcting lenses focus a microscope’s electron-beam with exceptional precision and, as a result, have pushed the resolving power of electron microscopes to the sub-angstrom level, making atom-resolved chemical analysis in three dimensions standard.
For decades, electron microscopists endeavored to resolve individual atoms in the materials they studied. Occasionally they succeeded, but the images tended to be fuzzy, lacking sharp contrast between neighboring atoms, rows of atoms, and distinct materials at interfaces. That all changed when aberration correctors came on the scene, originally in the 1990s, and then commercially a few years later.
“The power of these inventions goes beyond microscopy,” says materials scientist Joerg R. Jinschek of the Ohio State University. By providing the ability to scrutinize subtle changes in the composition and structure of metals, semiconductors, and other types of specimens in extreme detail, these innovations “revolutionized nanoscale characterization of materials.”
Stig Helveg, a microscopy expert at the Technical University of Denmark, notes that these sophisticated lenses simultaneously provide energy and spatial information with extreme resolution, enabling researchers to study atomic vibrations, which underpin chemical bonding. “These inventions are what make electron microscopy so exciting these days,” he says.
Krivanek says the news was unexpected “and pleasantly gentle.” He had no idea about the Kavli Foundation’s plans until he received an email asking what any researcher would love to be asked: “The President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters would like to talk to you by phone, when would be a good time to call?”
For the neuroscience prize, David Julius of the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian of Scripps Research are being recognized for their discoveries of sensory receptors that respond to temperature and pressure.
Julius and coworkers discovered an ion channel called TRPV1 that responds to heat. They found the sensor by screening for proteins that respond to capsaicin, the compound that makes chili peppers hot. TRPV1 was just the first of a family of proteins that respond to various temperature ranges. Other related ion channels are involved in inflammatory processes.
Patapoutian and colleagues discovered the PIEZO family of ion channels, which respond to pressure. The researchers blocked the expression of individual genes, looking for one whose reduced expression resulted in cells that didn’t respond to pressure. These ion channels help distinguish between gentle touch and more painful forms of pressure. In addition, they are involved in sensing blood pressure and bladder fullness.
“It was really a big mystery about how our sense of touch works,” says Diana Bautista, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian really cracked open the field in exciting and new ways.”
“I am grateful to the Kavli Foundation for choosing touch and pain as a topic worthy of recognition,” Julius says. “Chronic pain remains a largely unmet medical need (as highlighted in this country by the opioid epidemic), and it is only through basic, curiosity-driven research that we will find new mechanism-based solutions to this pressing problem.”
“One of the first reactions when I got the news was a feeling of gratitude to all the wonderful young trainees who have worked in my lab and whose work translated to these findings and recognition,” Patapoutian says. He also expressed appreciation for the Kavli Foundation awarding the efforts of basic science. “Almost all future medicines start as basic discoveries in biomedical laboratories, and it is important to educate society on the benefits of funding basic science,” he says.
The Kavli Foundation also announced the winner of the astrophysics prize on May 27. The Kavli Prizes are awarded every other year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kavli Foundation has postponed the award ceremony until September 2022, when it will present the 2020 and 2022 awards.