A Noble Event Keynote: Prof. Ada Yonath, Nobel laureate Chemistry

Published on
May 31, 2016

Wednesday 18 May 2016 Wagenigen Young Academy organised "A Noble Event" with Prof. Ada Yonath, Nobel laureate in Chemistry

Brief Bio Prof. Ada Yonath (1939)

Professor Ada Yonath is Director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot (Israel), and inventor of cryo bio-crystallography. She graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a Bsc in chemistry and Msc in biochemistry. For her PhD she studied the structure of collagen with X-ray crystallography at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Thereafter she was a Postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT. She returned to Israel in 1970 and established her own protein crystallography laboratory. Since 1979 she combined her work at the Weizmann Institute with a leading role at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and Hamburg. Prof. Yonath received numerous awards and honors amongst which the UNESCO-L'Oréal Award for European Woman in Life science (2008) and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (2009) for her work on the structure and function of the ribosome.

The public lecture of Prof. Ada Yonath attracted a lot of attention. In the Lecture Hall in the Orion building of Wageningen UR about 300 keen listeners gathered, mainly students but also teachers from different disciplines and HR staff members; a very diverse audience. Prof. Yonath brought an extremely instructive and fascinating story. Starting from DNA, the element of life we have all heard of, the public was gradually taken to the current 'cutting-edge': the development of new antibiotics and the unravelling of the mystery of the origin of life. The role of Ribosomes, the protein factories of the cell, formed of course the central part of the lecture.

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Using illustrative analogues such as ‘Structure means Function’ (see picture with paperclips) and vivid examples and animations it became clear, even to non-biologists, how the ribosome functions in translating the genetic code from RNA into proteins. If you missed the talk or want to watch it again, this animation shows the ribosome in action:

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After prof. Yonath explained us how ribosomes translate RNA into proteins, she took us to the next step: the working of antibiotics acting on ribosomes. Ribosomes of bacteria have slightly different structures compared to ribosomes of human cells, and therefore they are often a target for antibiotics that thereby can act selectively. An illustration of several different antibiotics targeting ribosomes can be seen in this clip:

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These insights into the workings of antibiotics at specific locations in the complex structure of the ribosome consequently enabled the team of Prof. Yonath and colleagues to unravel the mechanisms of the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. This in turn is now leading to the development of novel antibiotics through structure-based design. Such antibiotics harbor low risk of resistance development and do not cause ecological hazards because of metabolization in patients before excretion. 

The work of Prof. Yonath is an excellent example of how basic research can lead to groundbreaking insights with (unforeseen) far-reaching implications for applications and our daily quality of life. Her enthusiasm, passion and perseverance in the difficult road to make the big breakthrough makes Prof. Yonath an extremely inspiring Ambassador for science, not in the least for the new generation of researchers, male and female alike. If there is one advise Prof. Yonath would like to pass on to them, it surely is: "Go after your curiosity!".

The lecture was followed by the presentation of the book “Inspiring Women at WUR”, featuring 22 inspiring women from Wageningen UR and an update on the actions for gender balance, past and future at Wageningen UR. 

The organizing committee: Kristina Raab (cHR), Jasper van der Gucht & Gerlinde De Deyn (WYA)