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Ada Yonath

Nobel Prize in Chemistry


The Covid-19 virus is clever. It cannot replicate itself, but it convinces the host human cells to translate its genetic code for replicating itself. There are many unanswered questions about the coronavirus, and some of them pique of Israeli scientist Professor Ada Yonath’s interest: how the virus genetic material can minimize the use of the genetic code of the host cell without blocking itself, and how it enters the host translation machinery, the ribosome, for replicating itself. 

This has resulted in Prof Yonath, who has looked at but never studied pandemics before, in having discussions with scientist colleagues around the world, although she will not study it herself. “There are many laboratories studying the coronavirus. For me to do work on it would require substantial knowledge.”

Instead, she will continue her work researching the structure and function of the ribosome for which she won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, the first woman in 45 years to win this award. The impact of her work has allowed scientists to better understand how the genetic code is being translated and how antibiotics act on bacteria, information that can be used to produce new types of antibiotics. 

Her laboratory has done a lot of analysis and is now zooming in on how to design new types of antibiotics. 

However, there is a challenge in the development of antibiotics. When they first became available in early 20th century, they extended people’s life expectation by 20 to 25 years. But the bacteria “does not want to die”, she said, adding that hence they acquire resistance to antibiotics. Yet Big Pharma has little interest in developing new antibiotics. Only current ones are being improved. 

Prof Yonath believes that this is insufficient, so she has embarked on bold research to target the bacteria from outside the person, in an effort to create new antibiotics that are environmentally friendly.

Currently, Prof Yonath is focussed on human diseases that are linked to mutations in ribosomes. There are 95 components in a ribosome. However, even a single mutation is associated with cancer.

Professor Yonath grew up in Jerusalem in a poor family. Life became harder when her father passed away when she was 11 years old. She helped contribute to the household by doing chores like teaching younger kids, cleaning, carrying from supermarket, babysitting while continuing to excel in school. The poor, tough childhood taught her the value of hard work. 

“To be a good scientist means one must be curious and ask relevant questions,” she said. She thinks that excellence in science is not gender based, but that women are generally not encouraged by society to become scientists. “The idea is to excel, have passion in whatever you do, it doesn’t matter what gender you are.”

In her GYSS 2021 talk, she will be sharing her thoughts on the next generation of antibiotics. She is the current director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly of the Weizmann Institute of Science.