Yonath accepts Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Professor Ada Yonath acc

ada yonath new 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
ada yonath new 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In a formal but simple ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall on Thursday, 70-year-old Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Ada Yonath - a pioneer in the study of the key protein-producing ribosomes in all cells - became the first Israeli woman, and the ninth Israeli, to win a Nobel Prize - and only the fourth woman to become a chemistry laureate. Yonath, accompanied to Sweden by her only daughter, granddaughter and sister, shared the 10 million Swedish kroner ($1.4 million) award with Britain's Indian-born Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and American Thomas A. Steitz, who continued Yonath's work. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu congratulated Yonath Thursday night on her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The prime minister went on to thank Yonath for "the honor that her accomplishments have brought to Israel, its citizens, and the Israeli scientific community and institutions." The field involving the ribosome, which translates genetic code in the production of protein, has contributed much to understanding resistance of bacteria to antibiotics and is expected to help in the development of new and more effective anti-bacterial drugs. Yonath will later during her week in Stockholm deliver a science lecture on ribosomes to represent herself and the other two chemistry laureates, as will others among the remaining 10 Nobel laureates in medicine or physiology, chemistry or physics and literature. Each of the winners received a gold medal and a document from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf as the royal family and relatives and friends of the laureates were present. Orchestral music was played, and an opera singer sang arias from Tosca and Don Giovanni. After the hour-long event, the royals, winners and guests proceeded to City Hall for a ball and festive dinner, where Yonath was due to sit close to the king. The concert hall ceremony was devoid of all national symbols, including flags and anthems, as the annual occasion is meant to celebrate science. Simultaneously, scores of Yonath's colleagues attended a video screening of the ceremony at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, some of them wiping tears of joy from their eyes. Before the ceremony, Yonath - one of five women to receive a Nobel this year and one of just 40 to do so in 108 years - said she hoped her award would encourage Israeli children - both girls and boys - to develop an interest in sciences in general and specifically chemistry. "There is a great feeling here," Yonath said. "There is a lot of pleasure in it. I have my entire family here, and this is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with them. I can't complain." She spent some of her time with the other laureates rehearsing in the concert hall and learning to curtsey or bow to the king. She also attended a reception in her honor at the home of Benny Dagan, Israel's ambassador in Stockholm, where everyone wanted to shake her hand. The Nobel Prize was established by Swedish inventor and industrialist Alfred Nobel, who produced dynamite. The prize highlights and lends prestige to scientists who have spent decades committing to this time-consuming work. Technion Prof. Avram Hershko, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry four years ago with his longtime student Prof. Aharon Ciechanover, said he worried that due to inadequate state investment in research, "there will be no more" Israeli Nobels, as the prizes received now and recently were based on work done 20, 30 or more years ago. Yonath, a crystallographer born to a poor family in the Geula quarter of Jerusalem, was interested in science at an early age and recalled conducting 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." At the age of 10, after she lost her father - a rabbi - to illness, her mother raised her and her sister in Jerusalem by running a failing grocery store and then as a government clerk in Tel Aviv. Yonath graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and then a master's degree in biochemistry, followed by a doctorate in x-ray crystallography at the Weizmann Institute. For years she had to fight skepticism and even ridicule by colleagues and peers, describing the way she was sometimes treated as if she were "the village fool" studying a theoretical subject that "would get nowhere." Within a week of hearing she would receive the Nobel, she aroused some controversy by calling for the unconditional release of all Hamas prisoners, saying that "holding Palestinians captive encourages and perpetuates their motivation to harm Israel and its citizens.... Once we don't have any prisoners to release they will have no reason to kidnap soldiers."