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Nobel Prizewinners Study Core Process Of Life

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz of the United States and Israeli Ada Yonath (left to right)

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz of the United States and Israeli Ada Yonath (left to right)

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded jointly to U.S. scientists Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, and Israel's Ada Yonath for their "studies on the structure and function of the ribosome."

Ribosome is a substance inside cells that produces the protein that in turn controls the chemistry of all living organisms.

The $1.4 million award was announced by the Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

The citation says that the trio's work has been fundamental to the scientific understanding of life, and has helped researchers develop antibiotic cures for various diseases.

The laureates generated three-dimensional models that show how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes. The academy said these models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics, directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity's suffering.

It said the three laureates' studies had probed at the level of atomic particles one of life's core processes: namely the ribosome's translation of DNA information into life.

Inside every cell in all organisms, there are DNA molecules. They contain the blueprints for how a human being, a plant or a bacterium, looks and functions. But the DNA molecule is passive. If there were nothing else, there would be no life.

The blueprints become transformed into living matter through the work of ribosomes, says the citation.

Based upon the information in DNA, ribosomes make proteins: oxygen-transporting hemoglobin, antibodies of the immune system, hormones such as insulin, the collagen of the skin, or enzymes that break down sugar.

There are tens of thousands of proteins in the body and they all have different forms and functions.

They build and control life at the chemical level. An understanding of the ribosome's innermost workings is important for a scientific understanding of life.

The citation says this knowledge can be put to a practical and immediate use. Many of today's antibiotics cure various diseases by blocking the function of bacterial ribosomes. Without functional ribosomes, bacteria cannot survive.

"I'm feeling very, very happy," Yonath, only the fourth woman in more than a century to win the Nobel Chemistry Prize and the first since 1964, told journalists by telephone from Israel. "It's above and beyond my dreams."

Chemistry is the third of this year's Nobel prizes to be awarded. Literature follows on October 8, the peace prize on October 9, and economics on October 12.

Last year's chemistry prize was shared by Osaka Shimomura of Japan and U.S. researchers Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien for the discovery and development of green fluorescent protein.

AP reports Tsien's advice for new laureates is that they should keep their feet "firmly on the ground" and remember they are not more clever after the award than they were before.

Tsien says winning the prize has brought him many opportunities to lecture worldwide -- sometimes on subjects he knows little about.

The Nobel prizes were established in 1901 in accordance with the will of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, the man who discovered dynamite.

Nobel stipulated that the prizes should honor those individuals "who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

-- compiled from agency reports