The 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to molecular biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, biophysical chemist Thomas A. Steitz, and structural biologist Ada E. Yonath. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the prize on Oct. 7, 2009. The 10-million-kronor monetary prize will be split between the three awardees. The researchers were awarded the prize for showing the structure and function of the ribosome at an atomic level.
Ribosomes are the organelles in cells that make proteins such as oxygen-transporting hemoglobin, hormones like insulin, and collagen in the skin. Determining how ribosomes create proteins is essential for understanding the chemical processes that govern life.
The three scientists worked independently of each other, each using X-ray crystallography to map the position of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up each ribosome in bacterial cells. The technique requires the removal of molecules from cells, so they can be purified and made into crystals that can be examined using X-rays. The researchers all made breakthroughs in 2000. “It all started happening at once after so many years of not happening,” said Steitz in an interview for the Nobel Prize web site.
The crucial role ribosomes play in regulating life processes has made them a target for the development of new antibiotics. Some antibiotics work by blocking the function of bacterial ribosomes, a condition under which the bacteria cannot survive. The researchers all generated 3D models of the ribosome that show how different antibiotics bind to the organelle. These models are currently in use by scientists developing new antibiotics.
The Nobel winners are being honored for their contributions, which have increased understanding and made the goal of creating new antibiotics possible. In the interview for the Nobel Prize website, Steitz said that some new antibiotics that were developed from a better understanding of bacterial ribosomes are already in clinical trials. “We already have one new antibiotic that completed a Phase II clinical trial successfully, and several others are coming along,” said Steitz. “It is a rich environment for designing antibiotics; the structure has been very illuminating.”
In the future, Ramakrishnan said the X-ray crystallography technique will be applied to eukaryotic cells, as well. “We understand in a fuzzy way that something has to come in and move and so on, but if you want to really understand what goes on you need a high-resolution picture of all of the states of the ribosome,” said Ramakrishnan. “That won’t be enough though; it will take a lot of work by chemists to understand the ribosome the way we understand a typical chemical reaction.”
The scientists will travel to Stockholm, Sweden to receive their awards in December. “I have to say, it was the most exciting time in science that I have had by quite a lot,” said Steitz.
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a professor of molecular biology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. He received his doctorate in physics from Ohio University in Athens, OH. Thomas Steitz is a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University in New Haven, CT. He is also affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He received his doctorate in molecular biology and biochemistry from Harvard University in Cambrige, MA. Ada E. Yonath received her doctorate in X-ray crystallography at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rohovot, Israel, and is now a professor of structural biology there.