Wednesday, October 07, 2009

2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

"for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome"

This one's not unexpected. Almost everyone knows that there should be a Nobel Prize for the ribosome [see Nobel Prize Predictions]. Problem is, Harry Noller was on most people's short list. He's been working on the problem since 1968 and has published more than 200 papers on ribosome structure and function. This is going to be a controversial decision.

Here's the press release.
Press Release

7 October 2009

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2009 jointly to

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge,
United Kingdom

Thomas A. Steitz, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

Ada E. Yonath, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel

"for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome"

The ribosome translates the DNA code into life

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2009 awards studies of one of life's core processes: the ribosome's translation of DNA information into life. Ribosomes produce proteins, which in turn control the chemistry in all living organisms. As ribosomes are crucial to life, they are also a major target for new antibiotics.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry awards Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath for having showed what the ribosome looks like and how it functions at the atomic level. All three have used a method called X-ray crystallography to map the position for each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome.

Inside every cell in all organisms, there are DNA molecules. They contain the blueprints for how a human being, a plant or a bacterium, looks and functions. But the DNA molecule is passive. If there was nothing else, there would be no life.

The blueprints become transformed into living matter through the work of ribosomes. Based upon the information in DNA, ribosomes make proteins: oxygen-transporting haemoglobin, antibodies of the immune system, hormones such as insulin, the collagen of the skin, or enzymes that break down sugar. There are tens of thousands of proteins in the body and they all have different forms and functions. They build and control life at the chemical level.

An understanding of the ribosome's innermost workings is important for a scientific understanding of life. This knowledge can be put to a practical and immediate use; 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.

This year's three Laureates have all generated 3D models that show how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome. These models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics, directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity's suffering.


  1. Some sort of amends for southern India, which produced another scientist - GN Ramachandran, CV Raman's nephew - who was ignored by the Nobel committees. There's already a rumble over Dr. NS Kapany, being passed over for the Physics Nobel this year, whose work Kao built upon. So I guess these things happen all the time.

    It also shows that some of the most famous scientists work in obscurity.


  2. Noller lab was scooped. Bad luck. It seems that Nobels in science are heavily biased toward discoveries rather than significance of the overall contribution.

    It's very amusing to to read the stuff like "Steitz was first to determine the structure of the large ribosomal subunit". LOL. In the second half of 1990s, Steitz wasn't solving structures. Nope. Not at all. At this point in his career, his contribution likely accounted to pointing a finger to the problem for the postdoc who was instrumental in solving it. Most certainly, nothing on the practical level was done by him. Nenad Ban is the first author on all three major papers with many authors each; only people in Steitz lab could know for sure but it sounds that without Ban Steitz lab would not even be in competition with others.

    So, how exactly does it work? Szostak was a postdoc with Blackburn and they both got the prize. Ban was a postdoc with Steitz and he wasn't ever in the consideration... Would a Nobel in Literature be given to someone who comes up with a plot, then pays others to write the book?

    Else, if in reality the Prize is given for the long-term overall contribution to the problem, Noller is much more deserving than Steitz.

    I am not trying to demean Steitz in any way. Without a slightest doubt, he is personally and very immediately reposnsible for many important findings (just not ribosome). And under his management, his lab contributed many more important findings. But the practice of the overlords taking the credit for everyhting good their underlings do surely stinks big time.

  3. "Nobels in science are heavily biased toward discoveries rather than significance of the overall contribution."

    The inclusion of Yonath goes against that. She was also a long-time worker in the field who got scooped at the end.

    Part of the problem is that rule that no more than 3 people will be awarded. I suppose they could have waited for a few of them to die.

  4. Interestingly Venkat Ramakrishna the youngest of the three, shifted out of the US to UK, fed up with chasing grants (and probably having to testify before creationist kooks). Mark one fail for the worsening science culture of the US, thanks to Bush. This is the 1st instance I have come across of a scientist leaving the US seeking a more hospitable working environment.

    And Larry, while you are at it, can you kindly nail the stupid assertion of pride so common among creationists, IDiots, anti-health reform hacks, "The US has a great health system that offers the best incentives to scientists etc., because the US wins 90% of the Nobels.


  5. This is one of those times when the maximum of three co-prizewinners really sucks ass. That policy is more and more out of touch with the reality of modern science.

  6. I have to wonder if the paper from Steitz complaining that the Noller structure doesn't fit with his model played any roll in the decision.

  7. i really like d post
    congrats to d winners

  8. I wonder if chemists tire of their Nobel being awarded fro biology.

  9. I'm waiting for the "that's not real chemistry" rant to start again this year...

  10. Ironic, given "Bayesian Bouffant" must have just beat me to the send key ;-)

  11. If only they worked together we would have progressed much faster

  12. If they worked together, they wouldn't be human.

  13. Haha, I guess we are thinking along the same lines concerning Noller. I actually just started a poll on whether Noller deserved the Nobel Prize and if so - who should he replace. The results should be interesting...