Ada Yonath

From Basic Science to Improved Therapeutics

Born in Jerusalem, Professor Ada Yonath studied at the Hebrew University, Israel, earned her PhD from Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS), Israel, and completed her postdoctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon and at MIT, USA.

In the seventies she established the first laboratory for protein crystallography in Israel, the only of its kind in the country for almost a decade. Currently, she is the WIS Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology and the Director of the Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly. In parallel, during 1986-2004 she headed the Max-Planck-Research-Unit in Hamburg, Germany.

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She studies protein biosynthesis with focus on ribosomes, the universal cellular “factories” translating the genetic code into proteins. As ribosomes are targeted by many antibiotics, she is doing some research on their action alongside mechanisms acquiring antibiotics resistance.

She holds honorary doctorates from Hebrew, Tel-Aviv, Ben-Gurion, Open and Bar-Ilan universities, Israel; KEK Institute, Japan; Oslo University, Norway; Fujian U., China; NYU, USA; and Oxford University, UK.

Her awards include the 1st European Crystallography Prize; the Paul Karrer Gold Medal; the Rothschild Prize; the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University, NY; the Paul Ehrlich-Ludwig Medal; the Linus Pauling Gold Medal; the UNESCO Award for Women in Science; the Albert Einstein World Award for Excellence;  the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Ada Yonath won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her studies of ribosomes’ structure and function. She explained all the processes where ribosomes/RNA are involved and how this knowledge can be used in medical targets, as in antibiotics, which is the most important part of her discovery. She ended her speech talking about the importance of family.

FRONTAL: What makes an Israeli woman, with an education strongly marked by the Jewish tradition, wanting so much to reach the scientific world the way you have done it?

Ada Yonath: I have to correct something: “strongly marked by the Jewish tradition” is only correct until I was 4 or 5. Then I was influenced by Israel as a country but not so strongly, mainly by its general history and geography. But what made me become a scientist? Curiosity… If you want to understand the past you can read, if you want to understand nature… it can’t be read, some things you have to discover, that’s the way I felt.

F: Where did you find the strength and inspiration to pursue your research for 20 years, often having to deal with criticism from the international scientific community? Despite some disbelief regarding your work, what motivated you to keep on with it?

AY: Curiosity. I really wanted to understand the process. It was not easy, but the concept of difficulty is relative. I was young and difficulty didn’t disturb me. What disturbed me was science, which is not so simple to manipulate. Nevertheless, we went on slow and steady to get where we are. It wasn’t about winning anything. Although we went back and forth, our team endured the difficulties and was able to strive. That’s what gave me what you call strength. I actually found it fun! If you aim your research towards something that was not known before, it can turn out to be something amazing.

F: What relationship is there between “bears” and “ribosomes”? Apparently, they are unrelated, however, it seems that they have propelled your research, turning out to be determinant for the beginning of research on the crystallography of the ribosome.

AY: Bears have ribosomes. Every living cell has millions of them, so there are loads of connections. In order to determine structures in atomic resolutions, we resorted to bears. I read an article about a group that wanted to see how their hibernation metabolism works – we discovered that the ribosomes are located in the inner side of cells’ membranes. This way, we found out that bears can do what people can’t. We came across the idea that some kind of mechanism could be preventing their ribosomes from deteriorating.

F: Do you agree with the way your name is being associated with the unraveling of a crucial moment of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology?

AY: There are two possible ways of addressing your question. First of all, it’s a good thing that the ribosomes’ structure is known and I think I gave my contribution to it. Secondly, when it comes to the Central Dogma, it states that DNA is converted to mRNA and then to the ribosome, in order to be translated. It all starts with DNA, and discovering a unique region of RNA that could have been the origin of life… well, then I would be able to change the Dogma (RNA, DNA, RNA).

 F: What is the next big step you think must be taken so that the macromolecular universe of ribosomes may be brought closer to the macrocellular universe of Man? Can the application of this knowledge be transposed to the pharmaceutical industry, for instance?

AY: Predicting the next steps is difficult for me, I don’t think I have the knowledge or the wisdom to predict something. However, knowing the ribosome structure and its behaviour in the presence of antibiotics can be very useful, as half of them disturb protein biosynthesis. We dare say we have some thoughts on how to minimise bacterial resistance, hence making a contribution to Medicine. We’re working on it.

Interviewers: Ana Luísa Pereira, Catarina Cardoso

Writer: Catarina Cardoso