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Venki Ramakrishnan

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2009

Ribosomes are the factories of life, and translate information in our genes to produce proteins that in turn control the chemistry in all living organisms. Dr Venki Ramakrishnan’s laboratory determined the structure of the small subunit of the ribosome, which recognizes the genetic code and allows it to be translated accurately. 

This was followed a few years later by the detailed structure of the entire ribosome complexed with the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) genetic template and the transfer RNAs that bring in the amino acid building blocks of proteins. Subsequently, his laboratory determined the structure of the ribosome in many different states of the process to allow us to understand its mechanism. He also showed how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome, enabling pharmaceutical firms to design better ones to fight diseases. 

For these breakthroughs, he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with two other scientists. The Nobel Prize committee said of the pioneering 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.”

More recently, his team at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where he is a Group Leader, is investigating how the ribosome translates genetic information into proteins in eukaryotes and mitochondria, and how certain viral sequences disrupt the process. Eukaryotes are cells and organisms that have a clearly defined nucleus. Human cells, for instance, are eukaryotes. 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 is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences.  He was also President of the Royal Society from 2015 to 2020, leading its efforts to promote excellence in science, provide scientific advice to the British government and support international collaborations. 

He was knighted in Britain in 2012 for his contributions to the field of molecular biology, and has received many other awards, including the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine.