Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry yesterday, the Nobel committee in Stockholm announced. Yonath shares the prize with Britain's Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz, an American, for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome, a part of the cell that synthesizes protein and translates genetic code in the production of protein.
Yonath is the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology at Weizmann. She is the fourth woman to win the Nobel chemistry prize and the first since 1964, when Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin of Britain received the prize.
"I'm really, really happy," Yonath said after being informed of her victory. "I thought it was wonderful when the discovery came. It was a series of discoveries ... We still don't know everything, but we progressed a lot."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Yonath to congratulate her and expressed his "enormous pride, along with the entire nation" in her achievement. "The Nobel Prize is a true Olympics of humanity," said Netanyahu. "It is an enormous achievement."
Yonath told reporters that from the very beginning her project seemed to her Nobel-worthy, but that along the way many had been wary of her ability to see the research through. "I must say I was shocked when they called me and said I was in the leading group. I was sure they were pulling my leg, so I said: 'Here, they found themselves a new victim,'" she said.
"I saw the number 46 on the caller ID, the country code for Sweden. So I said, 'they're taking this joke really far,' but the tone was very much Swedish, with a very Swedish accent, so it seemed fine after all. From the first indication that perhaps this project would work, I was told that this was a project of Nobel standards."
At another point, however, she was told that her project would not succeed. "You won't make it, what you want to do others have tried and failed, so it won't happen. They gave me the impression that the problems were cardinal, that there was no chance," she said.
"People called me a dreamer," says Yonath, recalling her decision to undertake research on ribosomes.
Yonath was born in 1939 in Jerusalem, and received her Ph.D. in x-ray crystallography in 1968 from Weizmann. She holds B.Sc and M.Sc degrees in chemistry and biochemistry respectively, both from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Yonath has won many prizes for her research in recent years, including the Israel Prize in Chemistry and the Wolf Prize in Chemistry.
She was the first Israeli biologist to work with NASA in sending research material to outer space. She cooperated with NASA on 12 missions. Her research contributed greatly to the development of more effective antibiotics, which can overcome the phenomenon of drug resistant pathogens.
Yonath has one daughter, Dr. Hagit Yonath, a physician at the Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, and one granddaughter, Noa.
This year's three laureates all generated three-dimensional models that show how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes. "These models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics, directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity's suffering," the academy said in its announcement. "All three have used a method called x-ray crystallography to map the position for each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome," the academy said.
Each Nobel prize comes with a 10 million kronor [$1.4 million] purse, a diploma, a gold medal and an invitation to the prize ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
The last Israeli to receive a Nobel Prize was Yisrael Robert Aumann, who was awarded the prize in economics in 2005 for his work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. He shared the prize with Thomas Schelling.