Noble Prize for Chemistry 2009 Reiterates the Significance of Basic Science
“Ultimately, when you look at any biological question it becomes a chemical problem, because bio is done by molecules and molecules use chemical laws. It’s important to realize that support for basic science is the seed that allows the medical applications and technology to grow.”
“The idea of supporting long-term basic research like that at LMB does lead to breakthroughs and the ribosome is already starting to show its medical importance,”
-Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Noble Laureate, Chemistry, 2009.
Doctors Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath were awarded the 2009 Noble Prize for Chemistry for their roles in the long term study of ribosomes. Ribosomes are cell structures responsible for creating proteins.Understanding the role of ribosomes involved aspects of several scientific disciplines, including biology, physics and chemistry. Professor Ramakrishnan made the above remarks in an effort to bring attention to the importance of basic science and interdisciplinary research. This article aims to explain the roles Biology, Chemistry and Physics play in the Nobel Prize winning work.
Background information and Biology: All life is made of cells. All cells contain a nucleus and the nucleus contains chromosomes. The chromosomes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid, called DNA. DNA is like the instruction manual for a cell; it defines a cell’s role. Specific DNA sequences that are responsible for specific actions are called genes. Genes contain the code, or directions, that allow cells to make protein. Proteins play crucial roles in the functioning of all body systems.
In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick mapped the molecular structure of DNA, saying that DNA was made of chains of nucleic acids arranged in a spiraling ladder-like chain called a double helix. They won the 1962 noble prize for medicine with their discovery. However, they could not explain how DNA (a chemical molecule) became a biological system. Some unknown object within a cell had to bridge the gap between chemistry and biology. The research work of Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Dr. Thomas Steitz and Dr. Ada Yonath provided a key piece of information about that gap.
Chemistry: Ribosomes are a cell’s protein factory. Genes send their “code” for specific proteins to ribosomes via ribonucleic acid (RNA). The ribosomes convert the instructions (a biological code) into proteins (chemical molecules) and so become that intermediary between chemistry (DNA) and biology.
Physics: The researchers used a common experimental physics technique called x-ray crystallography to study the molecular structure of ribosomes.The process involved separating the ribosomes from their cells, purifying them and converting them to crystals. Using x-rays and applying Bragg’s Law of Diffraction from Physics the researchers were able to see the internal structure of ribosomes and so were able to understand how ribosomes translate genetic instructions into chemical proteins.
These three basic sciences together helped explain a process fundamental to life. This fundamental process also has some very complex and important applications.
Implications on Medicine:
“It’s the difference between knowing that when you put gasoline in a car and press on a pedal, it goes. But if you know that the gasoline gets ignited and pushes down pistons and drives the wheels, that’s a new level of understanding.”
– Professor Ramakrishnan to BBC News
This new level of understanding has broad medical implications. Most of our common, lifesaving antibiotics work by attacking the ribosomes of the invading bacteria. Interrupting that protein pathway kills the bacteria, thus eliminating the infection. Understanding just how a specific antibiotic affects those bacterial ribosomes could allow new antibiotic that work in different ways to be developed and so help address the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria.