Indian-Born Venkatraman Ramakrishnan wins Nobel Prize for Chemistry

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Oct. 9 – Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a senior scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, has won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his study of ribosomes.

The prize 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. 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 hemoglobin, 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.

Fifty seven-year-old Ramakrishnan, born in the temple town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, is the seventh Indian or of Indian origin to win a Nobel award. Ramakrishnan earned his B.Sc. in Physics (1971) from M S University in Baroda, Gujarat and later migrated to the United States to continue his studies where he later got settled and attained U.S. citizenship. He earned his Ph.D in Physics from Ohio University in the United States and later worked as a graduate student at the University of California from 1976-78.

During his stint at the varsity, Ramakrishnan conducted research with Dr. Mauricio Montal, a membrane biochemist and later designed his own two-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.