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Nobel Laureate Chemistry 2009: Ada E Yonath

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists for mapping the ribosome at the atomic level. The pioneering work was performed by the Israeli crystallographer Ada Yonath, who dedicatedly and persistently continued to reveal the large and complex ribosome structure at a time when many believed it was impossible. I met Ada Yonath for a chat in the beautiful Thavenius parlor at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm on 5 December 2009. She then had a couple of busy and eventful days ahead of her, holding lectures, doing interviews, maybe some sightseeing and of course, preparing for the grand finale; the prize-giving ceremony and the banquet held on 10 December. Ever since the Nobel Prize winners were announced in October, Ada Yonath’s phone has been ringing a lot and meeting reporters has almost become her daily work, she says and laughs. Despite the fact that she probably has answered the questions I ask her several times before she is passionate and engaging when she tells me about the research that led to the Nobel Prize. “It is a great honor and recognition of my work to receive a Nobel Prize and I was very excited and happy when I got the telephone call from Sweden,” she says. “However, recognition should not be a scientist’s everyday goal, there must be a passion for science and a dedication and determination beyond prizes and recognition. Also, you should not be afraid to fail.” Perhaps this passion and determination is what made her go on and continue working on the mapping of the ribosome structure although colleagues were skeptical. Polar bears It is an interesting story how Ada Yonath first began to work on the ribosome structure. At the end of the 1970’s she had a bicycle accident. She suffered from a brain concussion and had to rest from work for quite a long time. “I took the opportunity to read a lot and I particularly took a liking to an article describing the polar bears and what happens when they hibernate. In order to start their metabolism in spring there must be some kind of arrangement in the ribosomes. I got the idea that the ribosomes can be packed in an orderly way, that there is a way to preserve active ribosomes, by close-packing them,” she says. By studying extremely durable bacteria from the Black Sea, which could tolerate both high temperatures and high salt amounts, she found a way to preserve their activity and integrity during crystallization. In 1987, Ada Yonath and her colleagues developed a cryogenic technique, cryo bio-crystallography, a technique which has contributed a lot to the mapping of the ribosome structure and also to the entire field of structural biology. Before, only a few hundred protein structures were determined, and after 2000, 27 000 have been added. She cracked the ribosome structure Mapping and understanding the structure of the ribosome is an important and fundamental achievement of our time in our efforts to understand more about ourselves and wh
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