Physicist shares Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Oct 7, 2009 7 comments
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a biophysicist from India, has shared this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his pioneering work on the structure and function of ribosome. Found in large quantities in all living cells, ribosome is the key biological particle for the synthesis of proteins – the building blocks of animals and plants.
Ramakrishan of the University of Cambridge, UK will share the SEK10m prize with Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Thomas Steitz of Yale University in the US.
This year's Nobel winners join a lineage of researchers who have used X-ray crystallography to answer fundamental questions about the living world. Developed by physicists, this technique determines the structure of crystalline materials by scattering a beam of X-rays from the electrons within a material and measuring the diffraction pattern that results.
Most famously, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were honoured in 1962 for their discovery that DNA molecules – which contain the "blueprint for life" – have a double-helical structure.
By this time, the scientific community already knew that DNA has a relative, RNA, which is responsible for transporting genetic information from DNA to the sites where protein is created, known as ribosome. In 2006, Roger Kornberg was awarded a Nobel prize for using X-ray crystallography to decipher how information is copied to the messenger RNA molecule.
Picture of life
The latest recipients have added more detail to the picture of how proteins are generated. These researchers were the first to produce X-ray crystallography patterns of ribosomes with significantly clear resolution to decipher the atomic locations.
"I knew that a number of physicists had gone into biology and been successful, so I decided to switch." Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, University of Cambridge
In September 2000 Ramakrishnan published a paper with Yonath detailing the structure of a small ribosome subunit. In August of the same year, Steitz had managed to obtain the structure of the large subunit from the ribosome of a common bacteria. These two papers are cited as the key breakthroughs for studying the function of ribosome at the most basic, atomic level.
Born in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1952 Ramakrishnan received his early education in India before completing his PhD in physics in 1976 at Ohio University in the US. "I knew that a number of physicists had gone into biology and been successful, so I decided to switch," said Ramakrishnan.
Chemistry Nobel laureates are honoured for increasing our understanding of chemical processes and their molecular basis, and also for contributing to many of the technological advancements we enjoy today. Understanding the functionality of ribosome has already found practical use as 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.
About the author
James Dacey is a reporter for physicsworld.com