This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three molecular biologists who study ribosomes, the protein factories within cells.
Ribosomes were discovered in the 1950’s by George Palade, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the makeup of cells, but scientists weren’t able to take a close look at those organelles till the end of the century. Thomas Steitz, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, and Ada Yonath developed tricks for examining the tiny structures with x-rays and electron beams. The high-resolution 3D images they acquired will help chemists develop a host of better medications.
“Scientists around the world are using the winners’ research to develop new antibiotics that can be used in the ongoing battle against antibiotic-resistant microbes that cause so much illness, suffering and death.” said Thomas Lane, president of the American Chemical Society, in a press release.
Dozens of antibiotics — including tetracycline and clindamycin — work by gumming up the ribosomes inside bacteria. Each of those medications is made up of relatively small molecules that can wedge themselves into crevices in the ribosome, destroying the microbes’ ability to make protein, and thus rendering them helpless.
Armed with 3D images of antibiotic molecules wedged into ribosomes, medicinal chemists can refine their strategy for fighting bacteria. They can find new weak spots in bacterial ribosomes.
That approach is a lot like the way that the Rebel Alliance destroyed the first Death Star: by looking at its blueprint and finding a weak spot. Except, in this case the researchers are looking for vulnerable nooks and crannies in a blob of RNA and protein, rather than a thermal exhaust port.
Dozens of 3D images that show antibiotics sticking to ribosomes are available in the Protein DataBank, and you can look at them yourself with a tool called First Glance.
Just type the Protein DataBank ID number for the ribosome that you want to look at, and then start exploring.
Here are some of the best structures:
Ribosome with Clindamycin: 1YJN
Ribosome with Azithromycin: 1NWY
Ribosome with Erythromycin: 1JZY
Image: A ribosome reads an mRNA sequence and produces protein according to its genetic code. Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory