It was early October 2009. 'The prize for chemistry was to be announced on Wednesday. The chemistry prize often alternates between the hard-core chemists and the more biological chemists… Since they had given it to a "biological" area the year before, I figured the ribosome would not be a candidate and I would be reprieved for another year. So by Wednesday morning, I had completely forgotten about it. Halfway to work, I got a flat tyre on my bicycle and had to walk the rest of the way.'
These were the thoughts of author, Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan on the morning of the day he found out that that he has been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, along with Professor Thomas Steitz and Professor Ada Yonath 'for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome' (see BioNews 530).
The above fragment reflects the humour and sobriety present throughout Professor Ramakrishnan's memoir 'Gene Machine', which allow a reader to enjoy even the more technical chapters. It is also a sample of how the 'politics of recognition' can affect scientists' attitudes, if their contribution in a certain field has not been publicly acknowledged before.
Professor Ramakrishnan's expectation of being reprieved rather than receiving the award is based on factors described in the book; including his perception of himself as 'an accidental ribosome biologist' and not having been established in the field for as long as some of his colleagues, his conversations with Dr James Watson, a Nobel laureate himself, and with recipients of other major scientific awards. For a long time, he also did not realise that his contributions to revealing the structure of the ribosome – which had positioned Professor Ramakrishnan among the leaders in the 'race' – were in fact being noted and recognised by members of 'the Swedish circles'.
So what is the ribosome and why is it so important? The ribosome, essential for all life on Earth, is an organelle found in every living cell from bacteria and fungi through to plants, animals and humans. The structure and activities of the ribosome, based on and resulting from qualities of the primordial RNA (ribonucleic acid), hold hints about how life on Earth may have evolved, which the author elegantly explains.
The information encoded in genes on the DNA would have been irrelevant without the ribosome to decode these messages and make proteins as instructed. Hence Professor Ramakrishnan, president of the UK's Royal Society (see BioNews 795), refers to the ribosome as the 'gene machine'.
He tells the story of, firstly, his education and finding his niche during his early adventures with science. Professor Ramakrishnan portrays himself as an early-career researcher facing the same kinds of obstacles and dilemmas that many scientists have had to overcome in the past and others will encounter in the future. The reader also gains an insight into the author's personal life and the continuous support of his wife, Vera Rosenberry.
Professor Ramakrishnan then tells the story of the ribosome and the people who have been interchangeably collaborating and competing in the race to reveal its structure. He reveals the human face of scientific research with all the associated emotions ranging from excitement to disappointment, which contrast so strongly with the portrayal of science as a rational and sombre discipline. At the same time the author emphasises that the book is his personal account – with his perceptions and memories of events and breakthroughs.
By revealing key milestones in the race, the author not only holds a reader's attention, but also builds up anticipation, making the reader feel as if they, too, were involved in deciphering the 'gene machine's' secrets.
Importantly, the author also explains how, by knowing the structure and components of the bacterial ribosome, the work has opened up avenues to development of new antibiotics. This was a key biomedical finding in the era of bacterial superbugs.
Throughout the book, Professor Ramakrishnan keeps revisiting the theme of the 'politics of recognition'. In a chapter devoted to this he gives a very informative account of the history of the Nobel prize, how it has evolved, how it is perceived by the public, and how it compares to different awards in science and other fields.
Professor Ramakrishnan also cites interesting facts about early Nobel prize laureates and acknowledges great scientists who had been omitted, for instance, Dmitri Mendeleev who formulated the periodic table. This alludes to another Nobel laureate Dr Francis Crick's view, cited by the author, that there is 'a certain amount of lottery' about the prize.
Towards the end, Professor Ramakrishnan references the Bible, in the context of the various awards and honours that he has received, as he argues, due to having been awarded the Nobel prize in the first place. He quotes Matthew 13:12: 'For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.'
'Gene Machine' is written in the style of a breathtaking detective story told with great wit. Professor Ramakrishnan provides an entertaining, yet informative and insightful, personal account of developments in the ribosome field. You will not want to put this book down.