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Prof. Ada Yonath

Falling from a Bicycle, Riding a Ribosome

Prof. Ada Yonath’s 24-year collaboration with Max Planck scientists resulted in nearly 120 joint scientific papers, a patent with medical applications, and a Nobel Prize

Prof. Ada Yonath

Prof. Ada Yonath

Back in the late 1970s, the Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Ada Yonath spent years looking for a collaboration that would enable her to implement her ideas for the study of the ribosome, the cell’s protein factory. “I must have searched half the globe before landing in the lab of Prof. H. Günter Wittmann at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin,” she recalls.

When asked how she embarked on her challenging project, which, depending on one’s point of view, could at the time have been described as either overly ambitious or outright crazy, Yonath replied: “It was because I had a brain concussion.” She had fallen on her head from a bicycle and had to postpone a planned trip to Berlin. By the time she arrived there in November of 1979, the project she had originally planned to join had nearly ended. Inspired by an article on polar bears “packing” their ribosomes  before hibernation to keep them functional, she decided to switch to crystallization of the ribosome, to study its structure and try to discover how the genetic code is translated into proteins. When warned that outstanding scientific teams around the world had failed in this task despite efforts spanning two decades, she replied: “If I fail, at least I’ll be in good company.”

But Prof. Yonath and her German colleagues did manage to accomplish their mission impossible. After more than 25,000 attempts, they grew the first ribosome crystals in 1980. In subsequent studies, they continued to improve the crystals’ quality and introduced innovative methodologies, including cryo bio-crystallography. It almost instantly became routinely used worldwide, allowing them and others to pursue structural ribosome research. In 2000, these efforts culminated in solving the spatial structure of the ribosome’s two subunits – an accomplishment for which Yonath would receive the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Yonath’s 24-year collaboration with Max Planck scientists resulted in nearly 120 joint scientific papers and a patent with medical applications.  She headed the Max Planck Research Unit for Ribosomal Structure in Hamburg between 1986 and 2004.

The German-Israeli studies on the ribosome have enormous implications for science and medicine. For example, in studies published between 2001 and 2003 the scientists revealed the exact mode of action of more than a dozen antibiotic drugs, covering most of the clinically used antibiotic families. They showed that these antibiotics kill bacteria by binding to the bacterial ribosomes and shutting off their protein production. A better understanding of the drugs’ mechanisms may help improve existing antibiotics and lead to the design of new medications.

Although Prof. Yonath left the Max Planck Society in 2004, she continues her work on the ribosome structure at Weizmann, where she holds the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professorial Chair. “It is most gratifying to see young scientists who received their training in this field form the core of a new generation of ribosome researchers,” she says.


Israel BDS – building dialogue through science – aims to promote the kind of international collaboration that can lead to true understanding between people. Israel BDS stands for the free and open exchange of ideas among scientists everywhere. By reporting on the benefits of Israeli-international scientific research and the web of connections that these scientists create around the world, Israel BDS takes a vibrant approach to highlighting the global necessity of continued international scientific collaboration.