Thursday, October 8, 2009

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan: from a physicist to a Nobel laureate in Chemistry

He may have migrated to the U.S. long back, but Indian-American Venkatraman Ramakrishnan today made a billion people back home proud by winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his pioneering work on ribosome, a cellular machine that makes proteins.

57-year-old Dr. Ramakrishnan, born in the temple town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu in 1952, is the seventh Indian or of Indian origin to win the prestigious award.

Mr. Ramakrishnan earned his B.Sc. in Physics (1971) from Baroda University in Gujarat and later migrated to the U.S. to continue his studies where he later got settled and attained U.S. citizenship.

He earned his Ph.D in Physics from Ohio University in the U.S. and later worked as a graduate student at the University of California from 1976-78.

During his stint at the varsity, Dr. Ramakrishnan conducted a research with Dr. Mauricio Montal, a membrane biochemist and later designed his own two-year transition from physics to biology.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, he worked on a neutron-scattering map of the small ribosomal subunit of E Coli. He has been studying ribosome structure ever since.

Dr. Ramakrishnan, now a senior scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, has authored several important papers in academic journals.

In the August 26, 2000 issue of Nature, Dr. Ramakrishnan and his co-workers published the structure of the small ribosomal subunit of Thermus thermophilus, a heat-stable bacterium related to one found in the Yellowstone hot springs.

With this 5.5 Angstrom-resolution structure, Dr. Ramakrishnan’s group identified key portions of the RNA and, using previously determined structures, positioned seven of the subunit’s proteins.

In the September 21, 2000 issue of Nature, Dr. Ramakrishnan published two papers. In the first of these, he presented the 3 Angstrom structure of the 30S ribosomal subunit.

His second paper revealed the structures of the 30S subunit in complex with three antibiotics that target different regions of the subunit. In this paper, Dr. Ramakrishnan discussed the structural basis for the action of each of these drugs.

After his postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. Ramakrishnan joined the staff of Brookhaven National Laboratory in ther US. There, he began his collaboration with Stephen White to clone the genes for several ribosomal proteins and determine their three-dimensional structures.

He was also awarded a Guggenheim fellowship during his tenure there, and he used it to make the transition to X-ray crystallography.

Dr. Ramakrishnan moved to the University of Utah in 1995 to become a professor in the Department of Biochemistry.

There, he initiated his studies on protein-RNA complexes and the entire 30S subunit.

He since moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, where he is a Senior Scientist and Group Leader in the Structural Studies Division. He joins the list of several Nobel laureates who worked at the laboratory.

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