This is the fourth in a series of articles that celebrate the lives of the Nobel Prize laureates whose names grace the 100 streets of Laureate Park. These laureates are extraordinary men and women – many of whom are alive today – who through their lifetime achievements have made our daily lives immeasurably richer, often in ways not readily evident. Through these articles, we hope to introduce you to these exceptional individuals and encourage you to learn more about them.
Ada Yonath (pronounced as Yo-NATT) wanted to take a picture of a ribosome. More precisely, Ada wanted an X-ray image of a ribosome from which she could build a three-dimensional model of one of those delicate intracellular structures, so infinitesimally small that millions of them occupy a single living cell, where they manufacture the proteins necessary for life.
To produce these proteins, ribosomes translate genetic code that originate in DNA molecules and are delivered to them by messenger RNA. They are the factories that make the cells of all living things grow and thrive. Ada burned with curiosity to understand how these miniscule factories function.
This was no simple task. Obtaining the X-ray image Ada sought required ribosome molecules in crystallized form. Why crystallized molecules? A half-century earlier, it was discovered that X-rays shot through a stable crystal, such as salt or copper sulfate, produced a scattering of refracted light which, when decoded, would reveal the structure of the molecules within.
By the early 1970s, several biologists had attempted to produce useful crystallized ribosomes, and all had failed. Consensus within the scientific community deemed Ada’s quest, well, quixotic. “Can’t be done, we already tried,” was the prevailing attitude. Beneath the skepticism seemed to lay the unspoken judgment that such a major scientific achievement would not be accomplished by a woman.
Few, though, counted on the passion and persistence of Yonath. This was the young girl who had broken an arm measuring the height of the balcony of the family’s apartment by stacking up chairs and tables, like Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, which then tumbled down upon her. In another experiment, Ada decided to test the speed of water against kerosene, a race that caused a frightening fire.
This exuberant future laureate, like many of her Nobel colleagues, grew up seriously poor. In 1933, her parents had managed to escape the coming horrors of Central Europe, emigrating from Poland to Jerusalem where, as Ada recounts, the family income hovered near zero.
Ada’s father soon passed away, so the trio of Ada’s mother, a younger sister, and Ada moved to Tel Aviv, where Ada possessed insufficient funds to attend school until a school principal, recognizing her superior intelligence, asked her to tutor her classmates in exchange for tuition. Thus began her education in science, as she obtained degrees from Hebrew University in biology and earned her Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute of Science, both in Israel, before moving on to Carnegie Mellon and MIT as a postdoctoral fellow.
Crystallizing ribosome molecules is a devilishly difficult job. Ribosomes are unstable, devoid of internal symmetry, and dissolve quickly under X-ray bombardment. But in her quest to capture a ribosome crystal, Ada made a breakthrough when she learned that the ribosomes of hibernating polar bears settle down to a tidy structure, the type of molecular order needed for successful X-ray crystallography.
The behavior of ribosomes in the cold seemed to be key. Then, following years of trial and error, Ada developed a process now known as cryo-crystallography. In this process, ribosomes are exposed to extremely cold temperatures, as low as minus 185 C, an environment that produces ribosome crystals that do not disintegrate under X-ray exposure.
Armed with these crystals, Ada finally produced a three-dimensional model of a section, or subunit, of the ribosome of a certain bacteria. Building on this achievement, Ada began to focus on the interaction of ribosomes with antibiotics and ultimately made major contributions to the development of new types of these medications.
Suddenly, Yonath was not the crazy lady chasing an impossible dream. Her cryo-crystallography process quickly gained attention, and laboratories worldwide soon copied the procedure, expanding our mapping of ribosomes. For this singular achievement, Ada won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2009, together with fellow scientists Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz.
After gaining the Nobel Prize, Ada became the target of an unceasing procession of requests for interviews and lectures. But she saw a brighter side of her new celebrity, as she had become a mentor for young aspiring chemists and, I suspect, a beacon for young women wishing to make a career in science.
Ada’s personality exudes pure joy, the pure joy of a life practicing a love of science. She is the lady you would want to adopt as a grandmother for your children, if you only could. After securing that picture of her beloved ribosome, this still coquettish octogenarian told her young mentees: “My advice is, don’t look for advices. Do what you think is burning inside of you.” Ada Yonath burned with curiosity about the factories of life, and in doing so bequeathed to us a greater understanding of the stuff from which all living things are made.
Next month: Niels Finsen, Faroese Physician
Dennis Delehanty moved to Laureate Park with his wife, Elizabeth, from the Washington, D.C., area in mid-2018. Dennis completed a long career in international affairs at the U.S. Postal Service, the United Nations, and the U.S. Department of State, jobs that required extensive global travel and the acquisition of foreign languages. You can contact Dennis at email@example.com.