NIGMS Grantee John Fenn Wins Nobel Prize for Refining Mass Spectrometry Technique to Analyze Large Molecules

Release Date:
Alisa Zapp Machalek , NIGMS
(301) 496-7301

John B. Fenn, Ph.D., who received support for his research from NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, is a winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  He is cited for refining an analytical technique called mass spectrometry, making it possible to analyze large molecules in biological samples.  According to the Nobel Foundation, mass spectrometry has revolutionized the development of new pharmaceuticals and promises to advance disease diagnosis.

NIGMS provided more than $1.5 million to support Dr. Fenn's research from 1984 to 1994.  His prize-winning research was published during this period.

"I am delighted that the Nobel Committee chose to recognize this important tool, which is essential for modern biological research.  It is an exquisitely sensitive technique that is used in a wide range of applications, including the analysis of blood and urine samples as well as studies to increase the basic understanding of life processes," said Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., NIH Director.  "The NIH prides itself on fostering the development of new tools and techniques that advance health research by providing new ways to study, diagnose, and treat diseases."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm announced the chemistry prize winners this morning.  Dr. Fenn, professor of analytical chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University, shares half of the prize with Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corp. in Kyoto, Japan.  The two are cited for "for their development of soft desorption ionization methods for mass spectrometric analyses of biological macromolecules."  The other half of the prize goes to Kurt Wüthrich, Ph.D., of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, Switzerland, and The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA.  Dr. Wüthrich received the award "for his development of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for determining the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules in solution."

"Through extraordinary ingenuity, Dr. Fenn harnessed the power of mass spectrometry to analyze large molecules, such as proteins.  By enabling the quick, simultaneous analysis of hundreds of proteins, Dr. Fenn's technique essentially launched the entire field of proteomics," said Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D., acting director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.  "NIGMS has a long history of supporting instrumentation, including long-term support of the development and refinement of mass spectrometry, the tool that is recognized by today's Nobel Prize in Chemistry." 

Mass spectrometry is a highly selective and sensitive analytic technique used to identify substances in a mixture based on how much they weigh.  The technique relies on measuring the trajectories of charged molecules in a vacuum when exposed to various combinations of electric and magnetic fields.  It is used in almost every chemistry laboratory in the world. 

Initially, the tool could only identify small molecules.  That meant some of the most interesting biological molecules--including proteins, DNA, RNA, and carbohydrates--were inaccessible.  In the late 1980s, Dr. Fenn developed a technique called electrospray ionization (ESI) that enabled mass spectrometric analysis of these large molecules.  Using ESI, an intense electric field forces the liquid sample into a fine mist of tiny, highly charged droplets.  As the droplets evaporate, they leave behind ions that are perfectly suited for mass spectrometry.

In 1940, Dr. Fenn received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale University, where he also worked as a professor for many years.  He has been a research professor at Virginia Commonwealth University since 1994.

NIGMS funds research and research training in the basic biomedical sciences, including biorelated chemistry. This support enables scientists at universities, medical schools, and research institutions throughout the country to expand knowledge about the fundamental life processes that underlie human health and disease. Since 1954, NIH has supported the work of 30 Nobel laureates in chemistry.  Of these, 23 were supported by NIGMS.

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For comments on Dr. Fenn's NIGMS-supported research, call Alisa Machalek in the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at (301) 496-7301 to arrange an interview with an NIGMS scientist.