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Indian-origin scientist, two others win Nobel prize in chemistry

Americans Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz and Israeli Ada Yonath won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for mapping ribosomes, the protein-producing factories within cells, at the atomic level.

India-born Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a senior scientist at the MRC Laborartory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge.

Born in 1952 in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, Ramakrishnan shares the Nobel prize with Thomas E Steitz (US) and Ada E Yonath (Israel) for their “studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”.

Ramakrishnan earned his B.Sc. in Physics (1971) from Baroda University and his Ph.D. in Physics (1976) from Ohio University.

He moved into biology at the University of California, San Diego, where he took a year of classes, then conducted research with Dr Mauricio Montal, a membrane biochemist.

“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,” the Nobel committee said in its citation.

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, it said.

“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,” the citation said.

Better known as Venky among friends, Ramakrishnan started out as a theoretical physicist. After graduate school, he designed his own 2-year transition from physics to biology.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, he worked on a neutron-scattering map of the small ribosomal subunit of E Coli. He has been studying ribosome structure ever since.

Ramakrishnan has authored several important papers in academic journals.

In the August 26, 2000 issue of Nature, Ramakrishnan and his coworkers published the structure of the small ribosomal subunit of Thermus thermophilus, a heat-stable bacterium related to one found in the Yellowstone hot springs.

With this 5.5 Angstrom-resolution structure, Ramakrishnan’s group identified key portions of the RNA and, using previously determined structures, positioned seven of the subunit’s proteins.

In the September 21, 2000 issue of Nature, Ramakrishnan published two papers. In the first of these, he presents the 3 Angstrom structure of the 30S ribosomal subunit.

His second paper reveals the structures of the 30S subunit in complex with three antibiotics that target different regions of the subunit. In this paper, Ramakrishnan discusses the structural basis for the action of each of these drugs.

After his postdoctoral fellowship, Ramakrishnan joined the staff of Brookhaven National Laboratory in ther US. There, he began his collaboration with Stephen White to clone the genes for several ribosomal proteins and determine their three-dimensional structures.

He was also awarded a Guggenheim fellowship during his tenure there, and he used it to make the transition to X-ray crystallography.

Ramakrishnan moved to the University of Utah in 1995 to become a professor in the Department of Biochemistry. There, he initiated his studies on protein-RNA complexes and the entire 30S subunit.

He since moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, where he is a Senior Scientist and Group Leader in the Structural Studies Division. He joins the list of several Nobel laureates who worked at the laboratory.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their work has been fundamental to the scientific understanding of life and has helped researchers develop antibiotic cures for various diseases.

Yonath is the fourth woman to win the Nobel chemistry prize and the first since 1964, when Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin of Britain received the prize.

This year’s three laureates all generated three-dimensional models that show how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes.

“These models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics, directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity’s suffering,” the academy said in its announcement.

“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,” the academy said.

Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, established the Nobel Prizes in his will in 1895. The first awards were handed out six years later.

Each prize comes with a 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) purse, a diploma, a gold medal and an invitation to the prize ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10. The Peace Prize is handed out in Oslo.

On Monday, three American scientists shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, an insight that has inspired new lines of research into cancer.

The physics prize on Tuesday was split between a Hong Kong-based scientist who helped develop fiber-optic cable and two Canadian and American researchers who invented the “eye” in digital cameras _ technology that has revolutionized communications and science.

The literature and peace prize winners will be announced later this week and the economics announcement is set for Monday.

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