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The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today put the spotlight on ribosomes, and on three scientists. Two U.S. citizens and one Israeli have won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has this story on the scientists and their work.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Today started out with a little bad luck for Venki Ramakrishnan. He was bicycling to his job at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I came to work late because I had a flat tire, and I was just getting settled in and the phone rang. And I thought, you know, I have a lot of friends who play practical jokes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And this had to be one of those elaborate jokes because the voice said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was on the line. That's what you normally hear when you're about to be told you have won the Nobel Prize.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I said, well, you have a very good Swedish accent but, you know, I have no idea who you are.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Eventually, they convinced him it was for real. Ramakrishnan was sharing the chemistry prize with two other researchers: Ada Yonath, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel; and Thomas Steitz, of Yale University. The prize recognizes their work on ribosomes: the protein-making factories of living cells. Your body contains tens of thousands of different proteins. The recipe for each protein is encoded in the DNA of every cell. What the ribosome does is read the recipe and, like a cook, put together the right chemical pieces to make specific proteins. For a long time, scientists have wanted to understand exactly how this all happens. And for that, they would need to map the exact structure of the ribosome.
That's what was done by the three scientists honored with this year's Nobel. They used a technique, called X-ray crystallography, to map the position of every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms in a ribosome. This is something that was long thought to be a hopeless dream.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I was skeptical myself.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thomas Cech is a molecular biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who won his own Nobel Prize in Chemistry 20 years ago. He says it's hard to express just how complex the ribosome is, compared to other biochemical structures scientists have studied in the past.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Just imagine someone who had spent their life looking at ditches and then all of a sudden, you get a glimpse of the Grand Canyon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he says the three researchers definitely deserve the Nobel - although Venki Ramakrishnan says it feels strange that the prize he won is just limited to three people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, science is now done by massive groups of people. Even each of us have, you know, many talented people in our labs who make critical contributions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One practical application of knowing the ribosome structure is that it could be useful for medicine. Many antibiotics actually kill bacteria by blocking the normal function of the germ's ribosomes. So, having the complete structure of the ribosome could help scientists developing new antibiotics. One of this year's Nobel winners, Thomas Steitz, actually helped co-found a pharmaceutical company to design alternative antibiotics for drug- resistant infections.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And that is looking like it's going to be very successful.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked him how he thought winning the Nobel Prize would change his life.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, to be honest, I hope it doesn't.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you think you're going to go to work tomorrow?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Absolutely. I have to write a grant application. It's due very shortly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In fact, he says, working on that application is what he had been planning to do today.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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