ASBMB Member Steitz Awarded Nobel Prize

steitzOct. 7, 2009--American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology member Thomas A. Steitz, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Yale University, has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He shares the prize with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science for their studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, a complex of RNA and protein that translates the genetic code into functioning proteins.

The three scientists used X-ray crystallography to determine the three-dimensional structure of the complex. The groundwork for solving the structure of the ribosome was laid by Yonath in the 1980s when she obtained robust crystals of the ribosomal subunits. Steitz and Ramakrishnan followed this in the 1990s by solving low- and middle-resolution structures of the ribosomal subunits. Finally, in 2000, the scientists published high-resolution structures of parts of the ribosome and later followed up with models that show how different antibiotics bind to the complex.

“It's wonderful that the Nobel Committee honored the structure determination of the ribosome: Not only does it represent the climbing of a mountain — it is, after all, the structure of an entire organelle — that looked unscalable until Ada Yonath showed it could be crystallized; it is the target for a host of important drugs,” says ASBMB President Gregory A. Petsko.

“The structure is likely to lead to the development of new antibiotics to combat some of the resistant bacterial strains that pose such a threat today. And, as a window into one of the most important processes in all living cells, this atomic-resolution picture of the machinery that carries out that process is both fascinating and of surpassing beauty.”

Petsko added that all three winners are richly deserving of their share of this prize, however he felt it was unfortunate that the Nobel Committee couldn't have found a way to include Peter Moore of Yale University and Harry Noller of the University of California Santa Cruz, in the award.

Moore played a key role in the structure determination and made seminal earlier contributions to the understanding of the ribosome and Noller first proposed that the ribosomal RNA might actually contribute to the catalytic steps instead of playing merely a passive structural role. More recently, Noller determined the crystal structure of the complete ribosome at moderately high resolution.

“The rule that no more than three can share the prize led to some significant exclusions in this case,” he said.

Steitz is also Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Professor of Chemistry at Yale University. He has been an ASBMB member since 1974 and served on the ASBMB Awards Committee from 2006 to 2009.

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Read more about this year's Nobel Prize Winners

Thomas A. Steitz page at Yale University