A head full of ribosomes – news from Bremen

Israel's Ada Yonath won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Dpa / Lorenzo)

His tangled and curly hair is now commonplace in his native Israel. These hairstyles are called "heads full of ribosomes" – according to their research. Structural biologist and Nobel laureate Ada Yonath will receive an honorary doctorate from Jacobs University Bremen this Friday.

"When the subject of an honorary doctorate was addressed, Ada Yonath immediately came to my mind," says chemistry professor Ulrich Kortz, who receives the tribute from the from Yonath because he can not come in the short term. Kortz has known the 79-year-old woman for almost ten years and regularly chats with her. "It has contributed significantly to the structural elucidation of ribosomes," he said.

Ribosomes are also called cell power plants. They consist of hundreds of thousands of atoms, divided into two subunits. Together, they can produce proteins that take on multiple tasks in the body. Ada Yonath wanted to know exactly how these processes were going. Many researchers felt that it was useless given the size and dynamics of ribosomes.

But Yonath did not give up. In the course of decades of work, she has developed a special procedure for crystallization of ribosomes and has finally been able to decode their structure. His research has helped to better understand one of the fundamental processes of life: the formation of proteins. With two other researchers, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009.

Yonath grew up in poverty in Jerusalem. His parents were Zionist Jews who had immigrated to Palestine before the formation of the Israeli state. The father and the mother ran a small grocery store and were very religious, science interested them rather less. She was supported by her kindergarten teacher, who advised her parents to send her to a better school a few miles away. "It was around 1946, there was a lot of tension between Arabs and Jews," Yonath said during an interview with the scientific journal "The Conversation" in 2014. A bus ride to the city was a big draw. school would have been too dangerous, the kindergarten teacher teaches Yonath without further ado.

After the death of Yonath's father, she moved to Tel Aviv with her mother and attended high school. "When I was eleven years old, my mother asked me if I could help her with certain forms," ​​recalls Yonath in the interview. "I was shocked, a student had to help her mother calculate simple percentages," Yonath said. In retrospect, it was a key moment for her: from then on, she seized curiosity, she wanted to accumulate knowledge and explore the things around her. After her military service, she studied from 1959 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she first studied Chemistry at the Baccalaureate and from 1962 Biochemistry at the Master. After graduating, she joined the Weizmann Institute of Science in the Israeli city of Rehovot, where she is still active. In 1968, she received her Ph.D. with a thesis on X-ray crystallography. This was followed by posts at the famous Cambridge University and the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg.

Despite her many awards and honors, she also holds the Honorary Doctorate from the Universities of Hamburg and Berlin. She remained modest. "In English, it looks like it's down-to-earth, so down-to-earth and close," says Ulrich Kortz of Jacobs University. "She goes to see people and loves to chat in small circles with young students."

Yonath has remained faithful to ribosome research. In the meantime, she is dedicated to the effects of antibiotics. These often cling to the ribosomes of bacteria, blocking them and killing the bacteria. One of the challenges is the growing resistance to antibiotics, many substances no longer working. Yonath and his fellow researchers hope their research will help develop a new generation of more effective antibiotics.