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Stockholm: Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing new methods that let microscopes see finer details than they could before.

The three scientists were cited for "the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy," which the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said had bypassed the maximum resolution of traditional optical microscopes.

"Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nanodimension," the academy said.

Betzig, 54, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia.

Hell, 51, is director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, Germany.

Moerner, 61, is a professor at Stanford University in California.

For a long time optical microscopes were limited by among other things the wavelength of light. So scientists believed they could never yield a resolution better than 0.2 micrometers.

But helped by fluorescent molecules, the three scientists were able to break that limit, taking optical microscopy into a "new dimension" that made it possible to study the interplay between molecules inside cells, including the aggregation of disease-related proteins, the academy said.

Each of the laureates has used these methods to study the tiniest components of life.

Hell has studied nerve cells to get a better understanding of brain synapses; Moerner has studied proteins related to Huntington's disease; and Betzig has tracked cell division inside embryos, the academy said.

"I was totally surprised, I couldn't believe it," Hell said after learning he had won. "Fortunately I remembered the voice of Nordmark and I realized it was real," he added, referring to the Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Moerner said it's been 25 years since the first measurements were made.

"I'm incredibly excited and happy to be included with Eric Betzig and Stefan Hell," Moerner told The Associated Press.

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