A Tribute to Prof. Richard R. Ernst

A Tribute to Prof. Richard R. Ernst
10 June 2021

We were saddened to learn of the passing of Prof. Richard R. Ernst on June 4th 2021. Prof. Ernst was a pioneer of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) techniques, introducing new methodologies that still form the foundation of modern NMR experiments. For these developments he was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, finding out about the honour from the pilot on a flight from Moscow to New York.

Prof. Ernst’s work included the introduction of Fourier Transform NMR, involving the use of short, intense radiofrequency pulses targeting specific types of nuclei, with the signal emitted converted into NMR spectra by Fourier transform. This development greatly increased the signal sensitivity of NMR experiments, allowing the study of individual molecules for the first time and is still the basis for modern NMR experiments.

His group were also involved in the development of the first 2-dimensional NMR experiments, allowing more detailed information to be derived about interactions between nuclei. These experiments also reduced the complexity of NMR spectra for larger molecules, allowing proteins and other macromolecules to be studied by NMR.

Prof. Ernst’s work was vital in laying the foundations for structure determination by NMR spectroscopy. He formed a close collaboration with Prof. Kurt Wüthrich, who himself would be awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on application of NMR to the structural determination of biological macromolecules.

Since NMR structures were first accepted in the Protein Data Bank (PDB) in 1989, there have been over 14,000 entries released containing the structures of thousands of proteins and nucleic acids. Furthermore, hybrid structure determination techniques are seeing NMR used ever more to provide supporting data alongside other methods.

Our condolences go out to Prof. Ernst’s family, friends and colleagues.

Photo cropped from image by ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Unbekannt / Portr_16008 / CC BY-SA 4.0