"People called me a dreamer," says Prof. Ada Yonath of the Structural Biology Department, recalling her decision to undertake research on ribosomes – the cell's protein factories. Solving the ribosome's structure would give scientists unprecedented insight into how the genetic code is translated into proteins; by the late 1970s, however, top scientific teams around the world had already tried and failed to get these complex structures of protein and RNA to take on a crystalline form that could be studied. Dreamer or not, it was hard work that brought results: Yonath and colleagues made a staggering 25,000 attempts before they succeeded in creating the first ribosome crystals, in 1980.
And their work was just beginning. Over the next 20 years, Yonath and her colleagues would continue to improve their technique. In 2000, teams at Weizmann and the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg, Germany – both headed by Yonath – solved, for the first time, the complete spatial structure of both subunits of a bacterial ribosome. Science magazine counted this achievement among the ten most important scientific developments of that year. The next year, Yonath's teams revealed exactly how certain antibiotics are able to eliminate pathogenic bacteria by binding to their ribosomes, preventing them from producing crucial proteins.
Yonath's studies, which have stimulated intensive research worldwide, have now gone beyond the basic structure. She has revealed in detail how the genetic information is decoded, how the ribosome's inherent flexibility contributes to antibiotic selectivity and the secrets of cross-resistance to various antibiotic families. Her findings are crucial for developing advanced antibiotics.
Prof. Yonath is the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology. Prof. Ada Yonath's research is supported by the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly.