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Former U Biochemist Awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Oct. 7, 2009 – Venkatraman “Venki” Ramakrishnan – one of three winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry – worked at the University of Utah during 1995-1999, and on Wednesday acknowledged the U’s role in his award during media interviews and in e-mails to former colleagues in Utah.

“Venki, in his e-mail to me and other faculty members here, offered to come give us a talk, emphasizing the role his time in Utah played in this,” says Dana Carroll, professor and former chair of biochemistry, the department where Ramakrishnan taught.

“He started the work that ultimately resulted in the prize when he was in Utah, but the really big breakthroughs happened after he moved to the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge,” Carroll adds. “But he did start the work here.

Carroll’s wife, Jeannine Marlow, says that when a friend informed them of Ramakrishnan’s prize early Wednesday, “we were dancing in the streets.”

Ramakrishnan was quoted by the Indian news agency NDTV as giving some credit to his time in Utah.

“I have to say that I am deeply indebted to all of the brilliant associates, students and post doctors who worked in my lab, as science is a highly collaborative enterprise,” Ramakrishnan told NDTV. “The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the University of Utah supported this work, and the collegiate atmosphere there made it all possible.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Wednesday that it was awarding the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz of Yale University and Ada Yonath of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science for their work in mapping the atomic structure of ribosomes, which make proteins within cells.

The research has led to development of new antibiotics that target ribosomes.

“Really good universities not only retain great faculty, but they foster the development of careers of people who go on to other places,” Tom Parks, the University of Utah’s vice president for research, says of Ramakrishnan’s work at the U.

The only current University of Utah faculty member to win a Nobel is geneticist Mario Capecchi, who shared the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in developing gene-targeting technology, a method of learning what genes do and how they malfunction to cause disease.

Carroll – who chaired the Department of Biochemistry during 1985-2009 – fought hard to keep Ramakrishnan in Utah, but the Indian-born scientist departed for the world-renowned Cambridge, England, laboratory.

‘He Cared More about the Science … ’

“That lab is one of the premier molecular biology research labs in the world,” says Carroll. “So when I asked Venki what can I do to keep you, he said, ‘I don’t think there is anything.’”

The free provision of technical assistance and research materials at the MRC lab attracted Ramakrishnan, who was doubtful U.S. funding agencies would provide long-term funding for his research, which was considered “high-risk” and “technically very challenging,” Carroll says.

“Venki took a sizeable cut in salary to make the move,” he adds. “I increased his salary here to make the discrepancy even bigger. But he cared more about the science he’d be able to do than about his personal compensation.”

Ramakrishnan’s work involves ribosomes, the microscopic “protein factories” in cells of every living organism. Ribosomes “read” the genetic code in genes, and use the code to produce proteins, which carry out all the functions of cells and organisms. A human cell contains tens of millions of ribosomes. They are made of proteins and genetic material called RNA.

Research teams at several institutions bounced X-rays off crystallized ribosomes to get a detailed look at their three-dimensional structure, first at the molecular level in 1999, then at the atomic level in 2000.

Ramakrishnan headed one such team. He spent four years at the University of Utah, and then took a leave of absence in 1999 to work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He remained a Utah faculty member until Oct. 15, 2000, when he became a full-time employee at the MRC Laboratory.

“One of the key things he learned from the structure was exactly, at the atomic level, how the genetic code is read by ribosomes to make proteins,” Carroll says. “Venki not only determined the structure, but was able to interpret it in ways that were incredibly satisfying.”

Ramakrishnan’s prize-winning work included two studies published in 2000 in the British journal Nature. His co-authors included William M. Clemons, who graduated from the University of Utah in late 2000 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and former University of Utah postdoctoral fellow Brian T. Wimberly, who moved to England with Ramakrishnan in 1999.

In the journal Science’s Top 10 scientific developments of 2000, the research by Ramakrishnan and others was listed as first runner-up.

“Researchers this year got their closest look at one of the cell’s most important players, the protein factory called the ribosome,” Science’s editors wrote. “Over the last 12 months, several groups have sharpened our blurry view, presenting structures in atomic detail.”

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