Nobel Chemistry Prize Goes To 2 Americans, 1 Israeli
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of this years Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The award went to a group of scientists who did some fundamental research into the little protein-making factories that are inside all living cells.
NPRs science reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to talk more about that. Good morning.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Well, lets get their names first.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Okay. There are three winners. Its Ada Yonath at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, Thomas Steitz at Yale University here in the U.S. and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.
MONTAGNE: Obviously this is complicated research, but its quite intriguing, you know, protein-making factories. Tell us what they do inside those loving cells or how they make those cells live really.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Okay. In every cell, you have a little thing called a ribosome. And these are very complex little machines, but basically they build all the proteins we need for life. And the genetic code for different proteins, the kind of recipes for the proteins are contained in the DNA of each cell. But to make a protein, that recipe gets carried to the ribosome.
The ribosome reads the recipe and then puts together a string of chemicals called amino acids in exactly the right order to make whatever protein you want to have.
MONTAGNE: And this is pretty innocent, basic or long-known science. What do these Nobel winners discovered thats new?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, what they did is they all worked to develop a highly-detailed map of all the atoms in the ribosome. So basically, they wanted to know its structure in precise detail, because if you know the structure, then you know exactly how the ribosome works. And, you know, that sounds pretty straightforward, but the ribosome, remember, is really complicated. For a long time, people thought that figuring out a structure like this would not even be possible. It was just that complex and it took decades.
MONTAGNE: And so, what? They took decades to do this?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I mean, one of the researchers started working on it back in 1970s, and then, you know, work just continued up until the year 2000 when there was a publication finally of the structure of all the different atoms. But, I mean, people all over the world were doing research into this. They were sort of basically attacking the ribosome trying to figure out all its secrets.
MONTAGNE: So, how is this being used?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, its highly practical information, because if you think about the fact that ribosomes are essential for life, that means all life, including bacterial life that can cause disease. And so, ribosomes are a good target for drugs like antibiotics. And many antibiotics actually kill bacteria by binding to bacterial ribosomes and blocking their normal function.
And if you have a good map of all the atoms in a ribosome, then you can make a kind of 3D model and use that model to design new antibiotics that attack the ribosome in new ways. And thats really important because, as you know, resistance to antibiotics is a growing problem in medicine.
MONTAGNE: But because this is such a basic part of life, I mean, I guess that theres more uses for it than important as it is than antibiotics.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. I mean, I think that taking the genetic code and using it as a blueprint to make proteins is a profoundly, profoundly important thing. Its involved in pretty much everything a living thing does. And so, who knows what will come of it. And thats the kind of research that gets you a Nobel.
MONTAGNE: Nell, thanks very much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR science reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce.
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