Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz of the US and Ada Yonath of Israel won the Nobel Chemistry Prize yesterday for work on the ribosome, a cellular machine that makes proteins, the stuff of life.
The ribosome “reads” DNA and translates the code to make the body’s tens of thousands of different proteins, thus building and controlling life at the chemical level.
The Nobel committee said the trio’s contribution had been in X-ray crystallography that had generated 3D models, helping to show the ribosome’s individual atomic structure.
These models are now being harnessed by scientists in the quest for new microbe-killing drugs, “directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity’s suffering,” the jury said.
“Many of today’s antibiotics cure various diseases by blocking the function of bacterial ribosomes,” it said. “Without functional ribosomes, bacteria cannot survive. This is why ribosomes are such an important target for new antibiotics.”
The three worked independently of each other yet all published crucial studies on the subject in August and September 2000.
“This year’s Nobel laureates reached the finishing line almost simultaneously,” the jury said.
Yonath, 70, just the fourth woman to win the Nobel Chemistry Prize, told Swedish television by telephone from Israel just moments after the announcement was made in Stockholm that she was delighted to receive the honor.
“I was in my daughter’s home in Israel and the first reaction was overwhelming happiness. She is so proud, so this made me even happier,” she said.
Yonath, who earned her PhD in X-ray crystallography at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is now a professor of structural biology and biomolecular structure and assembly at the same school.
Steitz said he was awake when the early-morning phone call came from Stockholm.
“Fortunately I was about to get up to go to the gym. My caller from Stockholm said I shouldn’t go to the gym [because] there would be phone calls,” he told Swedish public radio.
Steitz did his PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry at Harvard University and is now a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University in the US.
Indian-born Ramakrishnan, who received his PhD in physics from Ohio University in the US and is now a senior scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain, was meanwhile modest in his first reaction.
“We’re only sort of captains of a team, lots of these ideas that led to this work ... was done by really brilliant students and post docs, so in a way, we are really representing all of that effort, representing a large endeavor,” he told Swedish radio.
He said he had not had time to inform his wife about the news when he was reached by Swedish radio’s science desk.
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