Dr. Ada Yonath has spent her career pioneering the use of the field of crystallography to map the structures of ribosomes.
Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Yonath was a curious child and always strove to understand the natural world around her. Enrolling in Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she completed undergraduate and graduate studies in chemistry, biophysics, and biochemistry. Working on her doctorate at the Weizmann Institute, her research focused on revealing the high resolution structures of collagen.
As a postdoctoral researcher she continued her studies on fibrous proteins and the structure of a globular protein staphylococcus nuclease. Completing her post-doctoral work in 1970, she returned to the Weizmann Institute where she initiated and established the first biological crystallography lab in Israel–the only one in the country for close to ten years.
The aim of her work was to determine the three-dimensional structure of the ribosome, the place where genetic information from messenger RNA is translated into chains of amino acids that then can build proteins. Ribosomes are central to life and scientists had been trying to figure out how they functioned but there was little understanding of its spatial structure, so Yonath felt there was no way to form a comprehensive picture. In order to reveal the three-dimensional structure at a molecular level, Yonath and her team needed crystals to study. But the intricate flexible unstable internal structure of the ribosome makes its crystallization a formidable task.
Dr. Yonath’s quest would take well over two decades of hard work and sometimes flat out ridicule and rejection by members of the scientific community. Working from her lab at Weitzman, she collaborated with researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Germany and over time she would come to lead a large team of international researchers.
It wasn’t until 2000 that Yonath’s perseverance paid off when she was able to successfully map the structure of ribosomes which opened up new paths for the development of more efficient antibacterial drugs. For her studies of the structure and function of the ribosome, Yonath shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Written by Angela Goad