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Profile: Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan,Thomas Steitz and Israeli Ada Yonath shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for chemistry for showing how ribosomes function.

Written by Associated Press | Stockholm |
October 7, 2009 5:40:31 pm

(b. 1952 in Chidambaram,Tamil Nadu)

Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan,known to most as “Venki,” started out as a theoretical physicist. After graduate school,he designed his own 2-year transition from physics to biology. Then,as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr Peter Moore 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.

In the August 26,2000 issue of Nature,Dr Ramakrishnan and his coworkers 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 presents the 3 Angstrom structure of the 30S ribosomal subunit. This work will teach us more about how mRNA is read and is translated faithfully into proteins. His second paper reveals the structures of the 30S subunit in complex with three antibiotics that target different regions of the subunit. In this paper,Dr Ramakrishnan discusses the structural basis for the action of each of these drugs.

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Dr Ramakrishnan earned his B.Sc. in physics (1971) from Baroda University in India and his Ph.D. in physics (1976) from Ohio University. He moved into biology at the University of California,San Diego,where he took a year of classes,then conducted research with Dr Mauricio Montal,a membrane biochemist.

After his postdoctoral fellowship with Dr Peter Moore,Dr Ramakrishnan joined the staff of Brookhaven National Laboratory. There,he began his ongoing collaboration with Dr Stephen White (now at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis) 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.

He 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.

Last year,he moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge,England,where he is a Senior Scientist and Group Leader in the Structural Studies Division.

Ramakrishnan’s crystal structures of the ribosome’s small subunit have been crucial for the understanding of how the ribosome achieves its precision. He identified something that could be described as a molecular ruler. Using the ruler twice,the ribosome double-checks that everything is correct.

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