Nobel Prize Talks: Ada E. Yonath
2014 is the International Year of Crystallography. A major contributor to the field is Ada Yonath, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. In this conversation she talks about her life as a scientist and her hardworking childhood where there was never a spare minute. Yonath also discusses the pressing need for the development of new antibiotics, and why she is more fond of facts than predictions.
Interview with the 2009 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath, 6 December 2009. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
The 2009 Nobel Laureates met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm on 9 December 2009 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV program ‘Nobel Minds’. The Laureates discussed the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, climate change data and science’s integrity in the face of political policy.
Participants of the 2009 edition of Nobel Minds were the Nobel Laureates in Physics Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith; the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Stetz and Ada E. Yonath; the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak; the Laureates in Economic Sciences Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson. Program host: Zeinab Badawi.
Telephone interview with Ada E. Yonath immediately following the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 7 October 2009. The interview was recorded minutes after the announcement and the interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Ada Yonath] Hello?
[Adam Smith] Professor Yonath?
[AS] Oh hello, my name is Adam Smith and I’m calling from the Nobel Foundation website and we record very short interviews with new Laureates. So, congratulations on the award.
[AY] Thank you.
[AS] And, you are the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964.
[AY] I think I’m the fourth. There was Marie Curie, and her daughter …
[AS] That’s right.
[AY] … Dorothy Hodgkin and now it’s me.
[AS] That’s right, exactly. You’re the fourth ever. And Dorothy Hodgkin’s was also of course for crystallography, so perhaps there’s something about …
[AY] That’s correct. She was a crystallographer and I admire her.
[AS] So, when you famously started working on the ribosome when others said it couldn’t be done, what do you think gave you the courage to try?
[AY] Ah. This was a sequence of events for which – and I’m not sure that you want it for this interview, the whole story – but because of a bicycle accident, I had some free time and I had to recover and I read a lot. And in this time, I read that the bears from the north pole … you know the bears that hibernate? That go to sleep in the winter? …
[AY] … Take their ribosomes almost regularly, almost periodically, from the membranes of themselves and that’s the way they pass the winter. And this gave me the idea that ribosomes can be packed orderly, which was not believed at that time. And, I thought, “why do they do this?” And, the logical way to explain what the bears are doing was that, in the end of the winter, they need lots of active ribosomes – ribosomes deteriorate very quickly otherwise – and if they slept all the winter, hibernate all the winter, and the ribosomes would be gone, what will you do when they get up? So, I thought that this is the way that they preserve active ribosomes, by the close-packing. And because of it, I thought maybe this type of attitude should be given also for solving the structure of the ribosomes. So, I used ribosomes from very, very robust bacteria under very, very active conditions and found a way – I actually took advantage of research done before me at the Weizmann, the same institute I am now – how to preserve their activity and their integrity while they crystallized. And, they crystallized! So, this is what gave me the courage, the north pole bears.
[AS] It’s a marvelous story and shows the advantage of reading more widely than one would think one needs to.
[AY] Yes, and first of all have … you know in the bicycle accident I had a brain concussion. It was relatively serious when it happened but when I recovered people asked me why did you, why the hell did you start with such a project. I said I had a brain concussion! This is correct but not the whole truth.
[AS] Well thank you for the story, it’s marvelous. And, along the way, did you ever doubt that you would succeed or were you certain that you could get there in the end?
[AY] Oh ya, I doubted more than expected. I had doubts all the time. The way was extremely, extremely difficult. And the crystallization, or the interaction I had with the bears, or with the journal about the bears, was just one small problem – afterwards I thought. Maybe it was the main problem in the beginning. But there were lots of them. At one point I had to describe what I am doing to a person who is a great intellectual but not a scientist, and I told him what we felt is that we are climbing mountains in order to reach the climax – and these mountains are like the Everest, the biggest most difficult to climb – only to find out that there is another mountain waiting behind it to be climbed afterwards. So every climbing was an achievement but there was a bigger problem behind it or above it. I had lots of minutes that I didn’t expect, but I thought science in general and this science particularly is worth the effort – even if we would never get the ultimate result.
[AS] Yes. It’s all to do with images your work, so can you describe how you see the ribosome when you think of it? Is it a machine?
[AY] I think that I understood the question. The ribosome is a machine that gets instructions from the genetic code and operates chemically in order to produce the product. During the work – they work very fast and very well and very accurately – and during their work they have to proof read the results and to protect the product until the product is capable of protecting itself. The product is a protein and if you think about the kangaroo in a pocket, the product goes first into a pocket which is actually in the ribosomal tunnel And this way you can look at it as a machine and we call it the cellular machine.
[AS] That’s a very nice image to hold in one’s head of the protective pocket of the kangaroo’s pouch, yes.
[AY] There is a tunnel for that, inside the ribosome, through which the newly-born protein progresses until it emerges out of the ribosome.
[AS] And, one of the aspects of the work that has been highlighted by the committee is the ribosome’s interaction with antibiotics and the hope that understanding the structural nature of those interactions will …
[AY] The ribosome is so important that it is a target for many antibiotics. Try to understand how this happens, how the antibiotics, they interact with the ribosome: what is the secret for their inhibition and how to reduce resistance to antibiotics and how to increase the possibility of the antibiotic to distinguish between the patient, that has to recover, and the pathogen, that has to die.
[AS] Yes, yes of course. So may I end by simply asking you what the award of the Nobel Prize means to you?
[AY] Oh, a lot! I think it’s the highest recognition, and although I can’t see myself working everyday for recognition, and if I thought about recognition I won’t go with the pathway that I did. I appreciate it very much. I think that there is something special with this prize.
[AS] Yes. And perhaps particularly special to be a woman who receives it?
[AY] I’m sorry that I can’t, I can’t think this is because of my gender. And, I don’t think that I did something that is specially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don’t think that this is because I was a woman. I’m pretty sure that if I was a man too they would compete, if the men would get to where I was at that time. I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don’t think that it disturbs, in my opinion. I may be wrong. I may be wrong: women try to explain me all types of things. And I think that women can make … women need, actually, they’re fortunate because if they don’t want to do science they can say, “I want to be with my kids.” And this is understandable, whereas a man cannot do this. So if we look at it from the other point, but this means also stopping science.
[AS] OK, well, when you come to Stockholm, in December, we have a chance to speak at greater length and perhaps we can explore these things more then.
[AY] I’m looking forward to it.
[AS] We are very much looking forward to seeing you here and I just wish to offer my congratulations again.
[AY] Thank you.
[AS] OK, thank you very much for speaking with us.
[AY] Bye, bye.
[AS] Thank you, bye, bye.
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