Ada Yonath


Thank you to Mar Gamish and Beryl Lieff Benderly, who suggested Ada Yonath for this project.

Ada E. Yonath was born on June 22, 1939 in Jerusalem, Israel.  She currently is the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology and Director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly in the Structural Biology Department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

In 2009 she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”

If you are not familiar with ribosomes, the introduction to the Nobel Prize talks contains an animation describing the function of the ribosome.  You can watch Yonath’s Nobel prize lecture, “Polar bears, unpaved roads, Everest climbing and Ribosomes in action” at this link.   In the lecture, she explains the scientific journey in which she discovered how to crystalize ribosomes.  During the talk she shows beautiful protein crystals of lysozyme grown by her granddaughter, then 6th grader Noa Yonath-Comarov.  Watson and Crick had been unable to crystallize ribosomes and when Yonath began her work, it was thought not to be possible!

Yonath’s intuition that ribosomes may be crystallized  stemmed from several sources.  She knew that ribosomes are readily deteriorating, within a few days. Therefore when she read a popular article about polar bears and learned that their ribosomes are packed in an orderly fashion on the inner side of their cell membranes, she inferred that this is the mechanism nature provides for maintaining a storage of functionally active ribosomes for months instead of days.  Yonath hypothesized that they were packed tightly because their integrity will be maintained under packed organization. Thus, although the bears would not need them during their winter sleep, they needed to be available as active ribosomes when the bears awakened.

Another clue came from a source of high activity ribosomes.  Yonath was interested in bacteria that live under extreme conditions, such as high temperature or high salinity, which at the time “were a big no-no” in the ribosome research community.  She was aware that the Dead Sea in Israel contains colonies of bacteria, Haloarcula marismortui, and found out how to extract their ribosomes.  She discovered that these ribosomes did crystallize!  After screening for 25000 different crystallization conditions, in 1980 Yonath was able to form small crystals.  Four years later she was able to grow large and beautiful crystals, some of which were determined to be suitable for crystallographic analysis.

However, they ran into trouble in 1986.  When using a synchrotron, which is required for collecting the crystallographic data, Yonath found that after less than a second of irradiation, the diffraction pattern decayed and could not be collected.  They couldn’t even collect 1% of the data from one crystal. They felt like they were climbing Mount Everest to achieve results, but still could not reach their aim. It seemed like the end of the project, but with Hakon Hope, they introduced a new technique, cryo bio crystallography, and they were able to make a breakthrough.

The prize talk is wonderful to hear, and includes more stories about Yonath’s discoveries.  Additional information about the work of Yonath’s research group can be found on her website.  She has worked with art students to create appealing animations to help audiences understand the structure and function of ribosomes.  You can find two videos on YouTube: Ribosome in action and Antibiotics targeting ribosomes.

An interview with Yonath before she received the Nobel Prize is featured in Candid Science VI: More Conversations with Famous Scientists by STEM-ma Magdi Hargittai and her husband, Istvan.  In that interview Yonath discusses her childhood and schooling as well as an introduction to the ribosome and symmetry of the crystals.  A testament to Yonath’s power as a speaker is that she says she was able to keep her granddaughter’s kindergarten class mesmerized for an hour while she described ribosomes.  Later in the interview she describes it as one of her greatest challenges.

When I first contacted Yonath about Grandma got STEM, she was skeptical about the project because she rightly insists that it is no big deal for grandmothers to be scientists!

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