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Venki Ramakrishnan

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2009

Ribosomes are a key part of all living organisms, as they translate the information in genes to produce proteins. Dr Venki Ramakrishnan made seminal breakthroughs in determining the structure of the ribosome, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 along with two other scientists for his work.

His laboratory first uncovered the structure of the ribosome’s small subunit, which recognises the genetic code and allows it to be translated accurately. Several years later, it established the detailed structure of the entire ribosome complexed with the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) genetic template and transfer RNAs that bring in proteins’ amino acid building blocks.

Subsequently, it ascertained the structure of the ribosome in different states of its function, enabling scientists to understand how it works. Dr Ramakrishnan also showed how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome, giving pharmaceutical companies the ability to design better ones to fight diseases.

The Nobel Prize committee said of the work: “The understanding of the ribosome’s structure and function is of great and immediate use to humanity. The discoveries are important both for the understanding of how life’s core processes function, and in order to save lives.”

His team at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where he is a Group Leader, is currently studying how the ribosome translates genetic information into proteins in eukaryotes and mitochondria, and how some viral sequences disrupt the process. 

Eukaryotes are cells and organisms with a clearly defined nucleus, such as human cells. Mitochondria are organelles in our cells involved in energy production, and carry their own small genome for which they have their own ribosomes.

Dr Ramakrishnan also completed a five-year term as President of the Royal Society in 2020, leading efforts to help British scientists remain in European science programmes after Brexit, giving advice to the British government to stop the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and promoting science. He is also writing a book on the cultural, biological and sociological aspects of ageing and death, which will be published in 2023.

He was knighted in the United Kingdom in 2012, and his awards include the 2010 Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour, 2012 Sir Hans Kreb Medal and 2014 XLVI Jiménez-Díaz Prize.