Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science - whose highly abstruse field and targets were regarded with skepticism by colleagues and who was treated like "the village fool" for years - has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her four decades of research on protein "factories" in cells.
Her dedicated work has led to the current struggle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria and many other applications. Yonath is the world's first woman to become a chemistry laureate since 1964, and only the fourth in history. Her prize will be Israel's ninth Nobel and its second in chemistry, and the Rehovot institute's first. The ceremony will be held in Stockholm on December 10.
Continuing a message expressed numerous times by Prof. Aaron Ciechanover after he won the 2004 Nobel in Chemistry with his mentor, Prof. Avram Hershko, Yonath warned on Wednesday that inadequate government funding available for aspiring Israeli scientists would make it far more difficult for younger researchers to earn Nobel Prizes in the future. "Those who win the prize now do so because of what has happened before, not because of what is happening now," she said.
However, she added that the world would soon be hearing about a promising new generation of Israeli scientists.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced two other winners to share the prize - American scientists Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, for their work on mapping ribosomes at the atomic level. The three will share the $1.4 million (10 million Swedish kroner) in prize money. All three chemistry laureates generated three-dimensional models that show how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes, but Yonath's work was the pioneering "mother" of the field. 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 ribosomes, the academy stated.
Appearing shell-shocked, with her famous mane of curly grey hair looking slightly wild, Yonath told a hastily arranged Wednesday press conference at the institute - which like all other universities is on Succot vacation - that she suspected reports of her winning the Nobel prize were an elaborate hoax until she received the official phone call notifying her of the award.
"When I saw the +46 Swedish country code on my phone screen, I thought, they're really taking this prank far," she said. "I'm happy, and shocked. I can't say exactly how I felt when I heard."
"Celebrities are more important than professors - everybody knows that," she added.
Asked by Channel 2 TV what she would be doing first thing Thursday, the down-to-earth new Nobel laureate replied that she had to take her car for its annual licensing test. "Oh, and I first have to wash it."
Yonath has one daughter, Dr. Hagith Yonath, a senior internal medicine specialist in Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, and one teenage granddaughter, Noa. "I am very proud of my mother," Hagith said with emotion. "This is a prize that has arrived after many years of hard work. We always believed in what she was doing in her special way."
Struggling with the intense media spotlight cast upon her, Yonath told dozens of reporters and photographers surrounding her, "What I went through to get into this room is almost as difficult as my research. I have almost lost the ability to speak."
Yonath said she was working away in her laboratory when she got the news and that she continued working after taking the call - until she was forced to stop by colleagues and friends.
Addressing younger Israeli scientists, Yonath said curiosity was the key to scientific progress. "If one has curiosity, then one stands the chance of attain a high level of scientific inquiry." Israeli scientific achievement has gone up several notches since "the days when I finished my doctorate," Yonath added.
Soon after the award was announced, President Shimon Peres called Yonath to congratulate her. "We are proud of you, it's hard to describe just how proud. One must remember that modern economies are not just global, but also individualistic - as a single person with creativity and innovation can be the basis for whole industries, and Israel excels in human talent."
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu followed by telling her: "I feel deeply proud. The Nobel Prize is humanity's real Olympics [medal]. Such contributions to science and academia have characterized the Jewish nation and the State of Israel for many years," he added.
Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz, a leading mathematician who previously taught at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, told The Jerusalem Post
that he hadn't been informed Yonath was a candidate but knows her personally and has long been impressed.
"It is true for all laureates that the prize is given decades after their achievement. It takes much time from the moment of the discovery until it is appreciated," he said.
He added that he would not predict whether young Israeli scientists starved for research funds and positions - while others are successfully lured to remain abroad - would win Nobel Prizes in the future. "But I definitely agree that unfortunately, Israel is not investing enough in science, and we must do more," the minister said.
The Weizmann Institute was delighted. "The Nobel Prize committee has recognized the significance of Prof. Ada Yonath's scientific research and awarded her this important prize. Her research is driven by curiosity and ambition to better understand the world and our place within it. This research aims high - to understand one of the most complicated 'machines' of the biological system," a statement it issued said.
The institute, which was taken by surprise even though Yonath has been regarded as a serious Nobel candidate for years, said that her "basic research - which began in the attempt to understand one of the principles of nature - eventually led to the understanding of how a number of antibiotics function, something that is likely to aid in the development of more advanced and effective antibiotics. It is hoped that her discovery will also help in the struggle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a problem recognized as one of the most central medical challenges of the 21st century."
"I was simply in tears; what an achievement," enthused Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of Beersheba's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who is a leading geneticist and pediatrician in her own right, as well as Israel's first female university president. "It is about Israel and the world and women - but it is above all about Ada with her incredible science, vision, stamina, determination and courage. And it is to me about closing a small circle: Note that Rosalind Franklin [the woman who was actively involved in describing the double-helix structure of DNA but did not receive a Nobel with Profs. James D. Watson and Francis Crick] was also a crystallographer."
Prof. Karen Avraham, a leading molecular geneticist at Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of medicine and chairman of its search committee for new faculty, told the Post
that Yonath "made her discoveries at a time of great challenges - at a time when our country was young - and while science was blossoming, resources were scarce. She worked in an area of basic research; the applications of this work were unknown then. Now we know that her work, and that of her co-winners, has been a major factor in our understanding how antibiotics work, which is undoubtedly one of the most important medical achievements in the past century."
She was greatly influenced by another woman scientist, Marie Curie, added Avraham. "Young women scientists need role models, and Ada has been a model for many of us in Israel and beyond. She has shown us how hard work and intellect can lead to success. Ada's discovery was and is brilliant - a timeless event, since while at the time it was made it was ground-breaking, the work continues to have far-reaching implications for human health and medicine."
Prof. Mary-Claire King, the highly respected geneticist at the University of Washington School of Medicine who is widely praised for her discovery of the BRCA1 gene responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers, e-mailed the Post
to say that Yonath - her good friend - solved the structure of the ribosome down to the level of each of its atoms.
"The understanding of the ribosome's function was revealed by its structure. Just as for DNA, structure revealed function. I particularly admire Ada's evolutionary perspective on the ribosome, these elegant structures over the entire course of their very long history, from bacteria to mammals. Her evolutionary perspective led, I believe, to the critical link of bacterial ribosomes as a target for antibiotic therapy."
Prof. Ehud Razin, president of the Israel Chemistry Society, noted that chemistry and computer science have proven to be the country's two leading fields. Chemicals, he said, constituted a quarter of its exports. Of nine state presidents, two - Chaim Weizmann and Ephraim Katzir - had been chemists, he added.
Although Yonath has accumulated prizes - more than 30 of them - like other women collect jewelry, she is very modest and unassuming. Among her most important previous awards were the Israel Prize, the Wolf Foundation Prize and the Technion's Harvey Prize (both of which often preceded the Nobel),
She installed the medallions, statues and parchment scrolls on a wall near her office "to bring joy to Helen Kimmelman, my New York benefactor who has invested in my research since 1988."
She recalled in a Post
interview last year that "I was the village fool for many years. It didn't bother me at all. I had doubts of course. At first, I wasn't sure that it would work. I had a lot of luck. For quite a while, I didn't receive a higher academic status. I didn't feel any discrimination against me as a woman scientist, but I hadn't produced a lot of science journal articles. The Weizmann Institute showed me respect and didn't require many administrative tasks, so I was quite independent. I did what I wanted."
She was born in 1939 in Jerusalem's Geula quarter to Zionist parents born in Poland. Her father was a rabbi who didn't know much about science and ran a grocery store in the neighborhood with her mother's help, she said. She studied at the state elementary school in the capital's Beit Hakerem neighborhood.
Yonath acknowledged her humble beginnings. "My neighborhood didn't really encourage women, though it didn't prevent women from progressing either," she said. "My kindergarten teacher encouarged me to learn, as did my school headmaster, who gave me a grant to study," she added.
Interested in science at an early age, Yonath conducted experiments on their apartment balcony.
"Once, when I tried to calculate the height of the balcony, I broke my arm. Another time, I wanted to see if water moves faster than kerosene. When my father came out to smoke, a fire broke out."
But her father died at 42, when she was only 10; her widowed mother, 38, had difficulties trying to run the grocery alone and moved with her and her sister to Tel Aviv to become a low-paid Treasury clerk.
After military service, Yonath returned to Jerusalem to earn her bachelor's degree in chemistry and master's degree in biophysics at the Hebrew University. She earned her Ph.D. at the Weizmann Institute and accepted postdoctoral positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University in the US.
In 1970, she established at Weizmann what was for nearly a decade Israel's only protein crystallography laboratory. After returning from a sabbatical year at the University of Chicago, she also headed for 17 years a research unit at the famed Max Planck Research Unit in Hamburg, Germany, in parallel to her research activities at Weizmann.
The target of Yonath's research for two decades has been ribosomes, which assemble proteins according to the genetic code, in a process called translation. Ribosomes build proteins from the genetic instructions held within messenger RNA. "I wanted to reveal how genetic code is translated into protein. I knew a great application could be for antibiotics, since half of the useful ones target the ribosomes, but I didn't believe I could contribute to it. It was like the next Mount Everest to conquer. It was my dream to contribute something to humanity," she recalled.
Her work took a big step forward in 1987, when she and her team developed the cryo technique. Her methodology contributed not only to ribosome research but also to the entire field of structural biology. Before then, a few hundred protein structures had been determined. Since 2000, 27,000 have been added.
Yonath devoted herself to discovering the structure of the ribosomal machinery of peptide-bond formation and was the first in the world to pioneer ribosomal crystallography, against all odds and singlehandedly, when others couldn't even conceive its possibility.
By pushing crystallography to its limits, she demonstrated the feasibility of this technique, thus inspiring prominent groups to repeat her experiments. By determining - in an incredibly short time - the structures of over a dozen different complexes of antibiotics, she revealed the ribosome-antibiotics binding sites on the molecular level and provided insight into antibiotics selectivity. Only on Tuesday, Israeli academics were disappointed when leading Tel Aviv University physicist Prof. Yakir Aharonov was not chosen for that Nobel Prize, even though he was highly rated in the competition. Yonath's prize on Wednesday made up for that disappointment.