Proteins are a fundamental building block of life, forming everything from powerful muscles to delicate hormones. They are made according to recipes encoded in our DNA, and our understanding of this production process has been central to countless medical breakthroughs. DNA is first transcribed into RNA, a sort of molecular photocopy, which is shepherded to a protein synthesis factory, the ribosome. The final translation inside ribosomes presented a mystery until Ada Yonath – born on this day in 1939 – managed to visualise it. Defying expectations, Yonath crystallised the ribosome and gradually revealed its structure by observing patterns of x-rays bouncing off it – a technique called X-ray crystallography, and an achievement that won her a share of a 2009 Nobel Prize. Since microbes’ ribosomes are subtly different to humans’, they sparked a wealth of new antibiotic opportunities, and are increasingly important today in the face of a growing antibiotic resistance threat.
Written by Anthony Lewis
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