Trio wins chemistry Nobel for ribosome mapping
Stockholm, October 7, 2009
Three scientists who produced atom-by-atom maps of the mysterious, life-giving ribosome won the Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday, a breakthrough that has been vital for the development of new antibiotics.
While DNA molecules contain the blueprint for life inside each cell of every organism, it is the ribosome that translates that information into life.
Israeli Ada Yonath and Americans Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz shared the 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) prize for showing how the ribosome, which produces protein, functions at the atomic level.
"As ribosomes are crucial to life, they are also a major target for new antibiotics," the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.
The academy said many of today's antibiotics cure various diseases by blocking the function of bacterial ribosomes.
Yonath, whose early trials led to the achievement, told a news conference by telephone that she was elated to receive the award. "It is above and beyond my dreams," she said.
All three scientists have used a method called X-ray crystallography to map the position for each of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome.
Yonath made an initial breakthrough at the end of the 1970s when she first tried to generate X-ray crystallographic structures of the ribosome, a feat most considered impossible.
The method involves aiming X-rays towards a crystal, which then scatter when they hit atoms. By looking at how the rays spread out, scientists can determine how atoms are positioned.
Jeremy Berg, director of the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences which funded all three scientists, told Reuters he was amazed at how intrepid Yonath was.
"I remember at the time being just completely stunned that she was somewhere between brave enough and crazy enough because it was way, way, way beyond the technnology available at that point," Berg said.
Life in the Dead Sea
Working with a micro-organism found in the nearby Dead Sea, Yonath cyrstallised ribosomes by freezing them at nearly minus 200 degrees Celsius.
It would take another 20 years before a full map could be made, during which time Steitz and Ramakrishnan joined the race.
In 1998, Steitz published the first crystal structure of a large part of a ribosome, something that looked like a dim photograph. The three scientists reached the finish line almost simultaneously, publishing crystal structures in 2000 that were sharply defined enough to locate atoms.
The academy said all three had generated three-dimensional models showing how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome.
"These models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics, directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity's suffering," it said.
Indian-born Ramakrishnan is a senior scientist at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, England. Steitz is at Yale University and Yonath works at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
The Nobel prizes are handed out annually for achievements in science, peace, literature and economics. This was the third of this year's Nobel prizes, following awards for medicine or physiology on Monday and for physics on Tuesday.
Prizes for the sciences and for peace were established in the will of 19th century dynamite tycoon Alfred Nobel and have been handed out since 1901. Sweden's central bank began awarding a prize for economics in 1969. – Reuters
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