New Delhi: For the first time ever, the Nobel Prize for chemistry has an Indian connection—Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, 57, an Indian-born physicist who graduated from Baroda university and is now a biophysicist at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK.
Ramakrishnan shared the Nobel Prize with fellow American Thomas Steitz and Israeli scientist Ada E. Yonath, all of whom independently analysed different parts of ribosomes, key units of the cell that allow DNA—the blueprint of life—to begin protein formation and thus all bodily processes, at a chemical level.
Though the importance of ribosomes in cells was known, the scientists who’ve won the 2009 Nobel chemistry prize were the first to use a technique called X-ray crystallography and prepare three-dimensional maps of the ribosomal surface and demonstrate how antibiotics bind to it. When combating a bacterial infection, antibodies stick to the bacterial ribosome’s surface and impair its functions.
In the limelight: Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in his lab at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, on Wednesday. Alastair Grant / AP
Ramakrishnan, born in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, said he wasn’t convinced when he got the morning phone call from the academy.
“Well, you know, I thought it was an elaborate joke. I have friends who play practical jokes,” Ramakrishnan told AP over phone from his lab in Cambridge. “I complimented him (the caller) on his Swedish accent.”
Ramakrishnan was in India last year, where he visited the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, according to M. Vijayan, an emeritus scientist there and president of the Indian National Science Academy (Insa).
Vijayan, who works in the same field as “Venky”, as he is referred to by his colleagues, said a Nobel recognition for the scientists’ work was imminent.
Amit Sharma, a crystallographer at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Delhi talks about Nobel winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan
“During the 1980s and 1990s, there were five scientists, including Venky, whose work on the ribosome surface structure analysis was top class. It was only a matter of who among them would be feted.” Ramakrishnan was recently made a foreign fellow of Insa, said Vijayan.
Amit Sharma, a crystallographer at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi, said he met Ramakrishnan this January at a lecture.
“He’s already won several prizes and at that time he joked that he was at the peak of his fame and he could only go down from here,” added Sharma.
Several attempts by Mint to contact Ramakrishnan in the UK were unsuccessful.
The award makes Ramakrishnan the third naturalized American citizen of Indian origin to bag a Nobel, considered the highest international recognition for a body of scientific work.
He is preceded by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who won the physics prize in 1983, and Har Gobind Khorana, who won the prize for medicine in 1968.
“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 Nobel academy said in its announcement.
The work of the scientists builds on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and, more directly, on the work done by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine for mapping DNA’s double helix structure, the citation said. In 2006, Roger D. Kornberg won the prize in chemistry for X-ray structures that showed how information is copied to RNA molecules, which carry information from DNA to the ribosomes.
“Now, one of the last pieces of the puzzles has been added—understanding how proteins are made,” said professor Gunnar von Heijne of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. “This discovery is important not only for science as such, but also gives us tools to develop new antibiotics.”
Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, established the Nobel prizes in his will in 1895. The first awards were handed out six years later.
Each prize comes with a 10 million kronor (Rs6.8 crore) purse, a diploma, a gold medal and an invitation to the prize ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December. The Nobel peace prize is handed out in Oslo.
AP contributed to this story.