Never Heard of Her – Ada E. Yonath – But She Changed the World – All By Herself

Another Unknown – Crystallographer

Ada E. Yonath was born on June 2, 1939 and is an Israeli crystallographer best known for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome.

Nobel Prize – “No Big Deal”

She is the current director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly of the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 2009, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz for her studies on the structure and function of the ribosome.

That made her the first Israeli woman to win the Nobel Prize out of ten Israeli Nobel laureates, the first woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel prize in the sciences, and the first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

However, she said herself that there was nothing special about a woman winning the Prize.


She attended college in Jerusalem, graduating from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1962, and a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1964. In 1968, she earned a Ph.D. in X-Ray crystallography at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Yonath accepted postdoctoral positions at Carnegie Mellon University (1969) and MIT (1970). While a postdoc at MIT she spent some time in the lab of subsequent 1976 chemistry Nobel Prize winner William N. Lipscomb, Jr. of Harvard University where she was inspired to pursue very large structures.


Yonath focuses on the mechanisms underlying protein biosynthesis, by ribosomal crystallography, a research line she pioneered over twenty years ago despite considerable skepticism of the international scientific community.

Ribosomes translate RNA into protein and because they have slightly different structures in microbes, when compared to eukaryotes, such as human cells, they are often a target for antibiotics. She determined the complete high-resolution structures of both ribosomal subunits and discovered within the otherwise asymmetric ribosome, the universal symmetrical region that provides the framework and navigates the process of polypeptide polymerization.

Consequently she showed that the ribosome is a ribozyme that places its substrates in stereochemistry suitable for peptide bond formation and for substrate-mediated catalysis. Two decades ago she visualized the path taken by the nascent proteins, namely the ribosomal tunnel, and recently revealed the dynamics elements enabling its involvement in elongation arrest, gating, intra-cellular regulation and nascent chain trafficking into their folding space.

What Does That Mean?

Simply – this understand helps persons and companies develop effective drugs.

Yonath elucidated the modes of action of over twenty different antibiotics targeting the ribosome, illuminated mechanisms of drug resistance and synergism, deciphered the structural basis for antibiotic selectivity and showed how it plays a key role in clinical usefulness and therapeutic effectiveness, thus paving the way for structure-based drug design.

For enabling ribosomal crystallography Yonath introduced a novel technique, cryo bio-crystallography, which became routine in structural biology and allowed intricate projects otherwise considered formidable.

Perhaps You Prefer To Remain Enigmatic

Yes, you probably never heard her name, but you may well have been a “recepient” of her science. Perhaps you took an antibiotic to get over a sinus infection. Perhaps that antibiotic was develop using the techniques of crystallography.

Perhaps you would like to change the world but remain rather anonymous. I am being straightforward when I say you may feel yourself too shy to make a splash that souses the whole world.

That’s more than okay. It may be just what the world needed – someone to change it for the better but who does not rise to unwanted world-celebrity.

If you are such a person – get to changing the world in your own enigmatic way. We need all such persons as this.

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