from the November 2009 issue

Israeli Awarded Nobel Prize

Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science, has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Prof. Yonath's research is driven by curiosity and ambition to better understand the world and our place within it. This research aims high: to understand one of the most complicated "machines" of the biological system. In the late 1970s, Prof. Yonath decided, decided to take on the challenge of answering one of the key questions concerning the activities of live cells: to decipher the structure and mechanism of action of ribosomes - the cell's protein factories. This was the beginning of a long scientific journey that has lasted decades, and which required courage and devotion from the start. The journey began in a modest laboratory with a modest budget, and with the years, increased to tens of researchers under the guidance of Prof. Yonath. This basic research, which began in the attempt to understand one of the principles of nature, eventually led to the understanding of how a number of antibiotics function, something that is likely to aid in the development of more advanced and effective antibiotics. This discovery will hopefully also help in the struggle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a problem recognized as one of the most central medical challenges of the 21 st century.

"People called me a dreamer," says Prof. Ada Yonath recalling her decision to undertake research on ribosomes - the cell's protein factories. Solving the ribosome's structure would give scientists unprecedented insight into how the genetic code is translated into proteins. y the late 1970s, however, top scientific teams around the world had already tried and failed to get these complex structures of protein and RNA to take on a crystalline form that could be studied. Dreamer or not, it was hard work that brought results: Yonath and colleagues made a staggering 25,000 attempts before they succeeded in creating the first ribosome crystals, in 1980.

And their work was just beginning.
Over the next 20 years, Yonath and her colleagues would continue to improve their technique. In 2000, teams at Weizmann and the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg, Germany - both headed by Yonath - solved, for the first time, the complete spatial structure of both subunits of a bacterial ribosome. Science magazine counted this achievement among the ten most important scientific developments of that year. The next year, Yonath's teams revealed exactly how certain antibiotics are able to eliminate pathogenic bacteria by binding to their ribosomes, preventing them from producing crucial proteins. Yonath's studies, which have stimulated intensive research worldwide, have now gone beyond the basic structure. She has revealed in detail how the genetic information is decoded, how the ribosome's inherent flexibility contributes to antibiotic selectivity and the secrets of cross-resistance to various antibiotic families. Her findings are crucial for developing advanced antibiotics. Prof. Ada Yonath's research is supported by the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly. Prof. Yonath is the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology.

Ada Yonath was born in Jerusalem to an impoverished Jewish family. Her parents had little opportunity for education themselves, but were supportive of their daughter receiving a good academic education. Her family moved to Tel Aviv after the death of her father. Ada Yonath graduated with a bachelor's degree in Chemistry (1962) and a master's degree in Biochemistry (1964) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and earned a Ph.D. in X-Ray Crystallography at the Weizmann Institute of Science (1968). She has also accepted postdoctoral positions at the Carnegie Mellon University (1969) and MIT (1970).

In 1970 she established what was for nearly a decade the only protein crystallography laboratory in Israel. After returning from a sabbatical year at the University of Chicago, she headed a Max-Planck Institute Research Unit in Hamburg, Germany (1986 - 2004) in parallel to her research activities at the Weizmann Institute.

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report November 2009

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