19 October 2009
Appeared in BioNews 530The 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to three structural biologists for their work exploring the functioning of ribosomes at the atomic level. The laureates, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A Steitz and Ada E Yonath, have been recognized for the development and application of a novel X-ray technique known as X-ray crystallography in investigating the atomic level functioning of ribosomes.
Ribosomes form a central part of our bodies' basic processes of construction, realising our DNA through the creation of proteins fundamental to life such as hormones, antibodies and enzymes. Such materials are essential to the processes that support not just human but also animal, plant and other life as well. The X-ray crystallography technique permits the mapping of ribosomes atom-by-atom. This process has allowed not just for the production of images of ribosomes but also has allowed the creation of 3D models of ribosomes that are now being employed in pharmaceutical research and will hopefully enable the development of new generations of therapeutic intervention.
In a press release the Nobel Foundation stated that 'an understanding of the ribosome's innermost workings is important for a scientific understanding of life', adding that, in practical terms, 'this knowledge can be put to a practical and immediate use; many of today's antibiotics cure various diseases by blocking the function of bacterial ribosomes. Without functional ribosomes, bacteria cannot survive. This is why ribosomes are such an important target for new antibiotics.'
The three researchers span three continents (encompassing the Cambridge MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel; and Yale University in the US), but all have generated their own 3D models of ribosomes that are being employed for drug research. In an interview with the New Scientist magazine Venki Ramakrishnan, an academic from the same lab as that in which Frances Crick shared the nobel prize for discovering DNA, explained how his work follows on from such earlier pioneering work: 'It's one of the central tenets of biology that DNA makes RNA makes protein. So I'm tremendously honoured to have received the prize for helping to explain how the ribosome works in the final step - reading the information contained in RNA and then producing proteins.'