WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ada Yonath, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, talked the U.S. government into spending $4.7 million on her research that eventually involved a Dead Sea salt-loving microbe.
Thomas Steitz of Yale University, a co-winner of the prize, got $10 million to pursue his research. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of Britain’s Medical Research Council received more than $2 million.
All three were funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and scientists say this support shows the value of government funding for basic scientific research, much of which may not lead to useful products for decades.
The three biochemists shared the award for work imaging the ribosome — the complex structure in cells that translates the genetic code into proteins that cells can use.
It is a matter of having a little faith, said Dr. Jeremy Berg, director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. He was impressed with Yonath’s ideas in 1987, when she spoke to a meeting at the non-profit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
“I remember at the time being just completely stunned that she was somewhere between brave enough and crazy enough and because it was way, way, way beyond the technology available at that point,” Berg said in a telephone interview.
Yonath found a way to freeze the ribosomes of bacteria and related organisms that thrive in the salty, airless conditions of the Dead Sea and make x-ray images of them.
It is the kind of work companies might shy away from, with a payoff decades in the future, and also arguably something American taxpayers should not have to fund. “But it was seen as certainly completely unique and something potentially so important that it should be funded,” Berg said.
By seeing what the structure actually looks like, drug developers can design an antibiotic that will gum up the works of a bacterial ribosome yet leave a human’s unaffected.
Another reason the corporate sector sometimes shrink from such research is that basic scientists thrive on sharing, collaborating, and building on one another’s ideas, which makes it harder for companies to keep their ideas proprietary.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants, publish our results, share our results, people pick them up, improve them, and shove them out into the larger body of knowledge,” said Thomas Lane, president of the American Chemical Society.
That sharing culture means that other researchers, in addition to the three winners, could arguably claim a stake in the prize. The Nobel committee, however, awards it to a maximum of three people.
“One of the reasons people have been unsure of the ribosome structure as a Nobel prize is that getting down to three people is tricky,” Berg said. “Harry Noller of the University of California Santa Cruz has been one of the real leaders of sorting out the biochemistry of the ribosome for a long time.”
The researchers must cobble together funding from a variety of sources, and success almost always means being good at writing grants — the proposals that persuade someone to pay for the work.
“The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the University of Utah supported this work and the collegiate atmosphere there made it all possible,” Ramakrishnan said in a statement.
Steitz works at Yale but is supported by the virtual Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Yonath works at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.
Lane noted the Obama administration just gave the NIH $5 billion from the $787 U.S. economic stimulus package. “We have been incredibly fortunate with (President Barack) Obama. He understands the importance of long-term research and how it goes back into the economy,” Lane said.
Editing by Paul Simao