Universiteit Leiden

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Ivar Pel

Spinoza Prize for Michel Orrit, Professor of Spectroscopy

It is partly thanks to Leiden professor Michel Orrit that we are today able to study individual molecules. He just missed winning a Nobel Prize, but is today the recipient of another important scientific award: NWO’s prestigious Spinoza Prize.

An ‘invisible giant’ in the world of spectroscopy is how NWO describes Professor Michel Orrit (1956).  Colleagues from the Netherland and abroad praise him as one of the leading and most innovative researchers in single-molecule optics. This is the name given to his work when three physicists received a Nobel Prize in 2014 for the development of fluorescent microscopy. In spite of these eulogies, Orrit is a modest man, who puts all his energy into research, knowledge transfer and supervising young researchers. Nonetheless, the work of this level-headed Frenchman has not gone unnoticed by NWO: hence the award of the Spinoza Prize, the highest Dutch science award.

What did you think when you heard the news?

‘It came as a complete surprise. I thought I was too old for these kinds of awards!  It goes without saying, the prize is not only an appreciation of my academic career to date, it is also a stimulus to continue and even expand the work over the work over the coming years. I may be slowly approaching the end of my career, but I can still carry out a lot of experiments with this 2.5 million euros. That’s exactly my definition of what science is all about: trying out things when you don’t know whether they’ll work or not. It’s important that there’s funding to do that.’ 

What is your particular expertise?

‘I study individual molecules. Around thirty years ago it wasn’t possible to study a single molecule. But at the end of the eighties, after a lot of trial and error, my American colleague William Moerner proved that it was possible. I did the same thing shortly afterwards, and I found even stronger evidence. I shone laser light on a molecule. The fluorescence – the light that the molecule reflects – was then ‘read’ with a small parabolic mirror that works more or less like a television satellite dish.  We’ve improved this technique since then and, as well as fluorescence,  we now use absorption to detect individual molecules. This gives us access to a much larger spectrum of molecules, because not all molecules fluoresce.’

What makes this research important for science and society?

‘Single-molecule spectroscopy makes it possible to show whether a particular protein is present in a cell or not. That’s an important step forward for medical research, for example. You can determine much faster whether someone is a carrier of a particular disease. Thanks to these scientific developments, it’s now much simpler and cheaper to map the genome of a living being. Whereas in the nineties it cost millions of dollars to work out a person’s genetic make-up, you can now do it in an afternoon and for less than a thousand euros. That’s really useful for forensic analyses.  And the same technique was also used during a cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010. Scientists were able to determine that Nepalese UN peace soldiers brought the  disease to Haiti. But the applications outside the medical and forensic world are also enormous.  We recently imaged conductive polymers for the first time ever. They’re used for making solar cells, and you need to know their characteristics in order to be able to make new solar cells work as efficiently as possible.’

What future research will you be able to do with this Spinoza Prize? 

‘Right now, I’m doing research with colleagues on how gold nano-antennae work. These are a kind of mini grain of rice that is small enough to penetrate a cell membrane without causing irreparable damage to the cell. By attaching the nano-antenna to a single molecule in the cell, you can enhance the fluorescence of the molecule up to five hundred times. That way you can see the molecule better, but you can also influence it from a distance. You can make it rotate, for example, you can take hold of it or pull on it.  Or you can heat it up and destroy it. We’re hoping we’ll be able to make a nanoscale scalpel that we can use to manipulate the molecules within a cell. I’m sure there will be all kinds of possible medical or chemical applications, but for the time being what’s important is to find out how it all works.’

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