With antibiotic resistance becoming increasingly concerning around the world, Professor Ada Yonath is tapping on her expertise in the ribosome to design new antibiotics to benefit people.
All cells in living organisms contain tiny factories called ribosomes that translate the genetic code into proteins, which are essential to life. In the late 1970s, Prof Yonath started studying these minuscule wonders and, against all odds, succeeded in determining the structure of the bacterial ribosome, a breakthrough that shed light on how all ribosomes function.
For her pioneering work, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 along with two other scientists, becoming the first woman in 45 years to win this award. The Nobel Prize committee said: “Her determination and ingenuity allowed researchers to see and understand the complex and crucial molecule. Since the ribosome is a major bacterial target for antibiotics, her work has led to new antibiotics and a better understanding of antibiotic resistance.”
Prof Yonath is currently part of an international team that is redesigning existing antibiotics to overcome bacterial resistance. The team said in a recent paper that its best drug candidate, which is yet to undergo clinical trials, is up to 56 times more active against the tested bacterial strains than two antibiotics, erythromycin and clarithromycin, that are on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines.
Her other ongoing work includes analysing how antibiotics act on bacteria, investigating diseases related to ribosomal mutations, which include diabetes and about 25 per cent of cancers, and researching the origins of life.
She grew up in Jerusalem in a poor family, with her father passing away when she was just 11 years old, and her tough childhood taught her the value of hard work.
“To be a good scientist means one must be curious, ask relevant questions and have passion in whatever you do,” she added. Her other honours include the 2002 Israel Prize, 2008 Albert Einstein World Award of Science, 2010 Wilhelm Exner Medal and 2011 Marie Curie Medal.
Prof Yonath is currently the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Director of its Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Centre for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly.