Statement from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences
October 7, 2009
The ribosome consists of RNA and 53 different proteins, making it complex and the largest structure yet determined by X-ray crystallography. Courtesy of Catherine Lawson, Rutgers University, and the RCSB Protein Data Bank.
Today’s Nobel Prize in chemistry recognizes groundbreaking structural biology research by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., Thomas A. Steitz, Ph.D., and Ada E. Yonath, Ph.D. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences congratulates them on this honor. NIGMS has supported their work with more than $14 million in research grants since 1971, and total support from the National Institutes of Health exceeds $17 million.
The scientists were recognized for their “studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.” Ribosomes are the molecular factories that manufacture proteins in humans and other organisms. Knowing the structure and function of the ribosome has helped us understand one of life’s most fundamental processes and manipulate it—many of our antibiotics work by disrupting bacterial ribosomes.
For decades, the large size and complexity of the ribosome have complicated efforts to understand its innermost workings. Advances in high-resolution protein structure determination throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, enabled the three Nobel laureates to generate key parts of the ribosome’s three-dimensional shape at the atomic level using a technique called X-ray crystallography. In later studies, the researchers produced structural models showing how different antibiotics bind to the protein-making machines. These accomplishments, which involved decades of painstaking research, ushered in a new era not just for protein studies, but also for studies of health and disease.
“When these researchers started their work, determining the structure and mechanism of the ribosome seemed nearly impossible,” said NIGMS director Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D. “Their achievement shows how basic research to answer fundamental questions about biology also lays the foundation for medical advances.”
Since its creation in 1962, NIGMS has funded the Nobel Prize-winning work of 73 scientists, now including 35 Nobel laureates in chemistry.
More information about NIGMS support of Nobel Prize winners is available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/factsheet_NIGMSNobelists.htm.