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Prof. Ada Yonath is the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize which is a result of her achievements over a lifetime! She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the year 2015 along with Prof. Thomas E. Seitz and Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. So, what was the achievement awarded for? The mapping of the structure of the Ribosome! Okay, so now what is the ribosome? Read on below.

Ribosomes

Ribosomes are minute structures within our cells that act as the epicenter for the creation of proteins! The genetic information that is stored in the form of messenger RNAs is translated to code for amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules and different combinations of these, produce different proteins. This shows that this is particularly important because we cannot function without proteins in our bodies. Mapping the structure of the ribosome was considered to be an impossible task at the time when she was working on it. Why? Well, because due to its unstable structure, has no internal symmetry, and is an extremely small size, so, it is very difficult to isolate it.

Ribosome structure in 3D
Ribosome structure in 3D (Source: nobelprize.org)

So, how did she come about this discovery?

Her early life as a researcher began by looking at cellular machinery and understanding its workings. She chose the ribosome as a starting point because it is responsible for the proteins that are made in our body. She wanted to crystallize the ribosome to be able to isolate and look at its internal structure but she was considered to be a fool to even try it! For her, it took over 25,000 tries, and even then she wasn’t able to. Then it struck her that maybe she should try isolating it from species that can survive harsh conditions because their cellular machinery is much tougher and can withstand physical treatment as well.

This is when she used the bacterial species Geobacillus stearothermophilus and tried to isolate the structure from it. It made sense because it was a desert species and is able to survive extremely harsh climates. Once she isolated the ribosome, now she had to image it. This would involve passing X-rays without damaging the fragile structure. She invented a technique known as Cryo-bio-crystallography. She irradiated the crystals with X-rays but before doing so blasted them at -185o C, to keep them intact, and voila, there we have the first image of a ribosome!

Changing the dynamics of the antibiotic era

Eventually, they managed to map both subunits of the ribosome which has tended itself to the creation of the 3-D image given above. The potential applications of this were innumerous especially in the field of microbiology. Since antibiotics mostly target the ribosomal units of bacterial cells, being able to visualize the ribosome and have it mapped, led to the creation of a new generation of antibiotics. This was done based on the ribosome structure mimicry or even specific targeting of the structure. She has personally gone on to show how over 20 antibiotics work in bacterial cells with their target being the ribosome, structure specifically! Her curiosity and need to explore the questions she had in mind, has benefitted humanity tremendously!

References

Ada Yonath (2009). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/ada-yonath

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