The cool electron microscope, an early Malaysian experience

THE 2017 Nobel prize in Chemistry was awarded last week to the inventors of a cool microscope.

Developed by Jacques Dubochet at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Joachim Frank at Columbia University US and Richard Henderson at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK, cryo-electron microscopy is a rare feat of science and engineering that makes things both simpler and better.

Using it, scientists are now able to make high-resolution, 3D images to target cancer drugs and demystify virus. This has significantly speeded up the capability to study in much more detail disease-causing micro-organisms, how these impact body cells and develop vaccines.

The "electron microscope" made me reminisce about how I came to know of this "wonder" instrument in the early 1960s, when an electron microscope arrived at the Rubber Research Institute Experiment Station in Sungai Buloh where I worked as a research assistant.

I recall, for nearly two years, everyone who heard about it waited with eager anticipation to see something "out of this world" arrive in our midst. We had heard that this invaluable, expensive invention was going to revolutionise the quality of research and carry the rubber industry to a higher level as never before.

A research team led by an expatriate microbiologist, D. H. Taysum – despite considerable reluctance by the authorities to acquire an electron microscope, due to its "enormous" cost versus envisaged utilisation; specialised conditions required for it to be set up and maintained; and the high skill-levels needed by those who were to operate it – convinced those concerned to have the "miracle" instrument imported from Europe.

When "D-Day" came, Malaysia's first precious electron microscope was ferried from Kuala Lumpur to Sungai Buloh in a convoy of vehicles with scientists and engineers.

It was housed in a specially-built double-sized laboratory at the RRI station, with special features such as stable high-voltage current, ultra-high vacuum systems and protection from vibration and external magnetic fields.

Among those Malaysian research assistants who worked with Taysum were Amar Singh Dhillon, Wong Kam Chan and Mohd Rosli.

Indeed, the 2017 Nobel Chemistry Prize winners have, through their research, brought "the greatest benefit to mankind", in the words of the Nobel awards committee. Each corner of the cell can be captured in atomic detail and the ability to do all this fundamentally transforms biochemistry and medicine and significantly enhances our understanding of biology as it impacts the human being.

Rueben Dudley
Petaling Jaya