Nobel for Chemistry Goes to Israeli, Two Americans
Unraveling the machinery that generates proteins within cells, a discovery that offered new avenues to antibiotics, has earned two Americans and an Israeli the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, 57, of the United Kingdom's MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology; Thomas Steitz, 69, of Yale; and Israel's Ada Yonath, 70, of the Weizmann Institute of Science will share the $1.4 million prize equally. Working separately, the trio cracked the chemistry of the "ribosome" inside every cell and showed "how the DNA code is translated into life," Gunnar Oquist of the Royal Swedish Academy said at Wednesday's announcement.
"It seemed a bit like climbing Mount Everest. We knew it was doable, in theory. But we didn't know how to get there," Steitz said. "When we got it, it was the most exhilarating moment I've had in science."
"Everyone recognized this was on the short list for the prize," said Jeremy Berg, director of the federal National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health that funded all three winners for parts of their research. "We're terribly pleased but not terribly surprised."
Inside cells, thousands of ribosomes hook up with messenger RNA molecules carrying bits of genetic code. The codes tell ribosomes to spit out proteins, the building blocks of blood, bone, brain and every other tissue. How these machines work had been a mystery without knowing the structure of the ribosome itself.
In 1980, Yonath first reported X-rays of crystallized ribosomes taken from microbes that thrive at high-temperature in the Dead Sea. The images began to reveal the shape of the ribosome. She later showed that freezing crystallized ribosomes also could lead to better X-rays of their structure.
Steitz and Ramakrishnan, a U.S. citizen, tackled higher-resolution X-rays of the small and large halves of the ribosomes, respectively. All three winners produced definitive images of the ribosome's structure in 2000.
"Proteins are workhorses of the cell. Almost no other process is so fundamental," Berg said.
Steitz noted the ribosome work led to designs for antibiotics to combat infections such as drug-resistant staph. It also helped researchers understand the evolution of life, where at its core, the ribosome is built of RNA, not proteins, answering questions about how early life produced its own building blocks. An "RNA world" likely existed before microbes moved on to producing DNA and proteins billions of years ago, he suggested.
"Life is chemistry, and I think the award is well-deserved," said Thomas Lane of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C. Yonath is the first woman to win the chemistry Nobel since 1964, he noted, although half of U.S. chemistry degrees now go to women. "I think we'll see more."