At first glance, the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry appears to be honoring…well, biology.
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz, and Ada Yonath were distinguished earlier this week for their contributions to “studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.” Ribosomes are responsible for reading genetic information in the body and using that information to produce necessary proteins. In other words, if your genes are blueprints for how your body functions, ribosomes are the general contractors, responsible for taking some jargon on a page and translating it into a fully finished and operational masterpiece.
However, despite the undeniable importance of this process, the announcement of this year’s award came as a surprise to many chemists, especially considering the trio wasn’t even considered in a list of potential winners compiled by Thomson-Reuters. So, where’s the chemistry?
The work honored this year does sound like something you might hear in a biology class. But perhaps you can think of it this way: proteins control the chemistry of living things, and understanding exactly how proteins are made is inherently a chemistry problem.
Each of the winners now share the $1.4 million prize for their development of 3-D models of ribosomes that led to an understanding of their exquisite structure and function. So, although the work has important medical implications, including, for example, how antibiotics can be used to shut down bacterial ribosomes, the prize recognizes its use of powerful chemical technology, such as crystallographic techniques that traditional chemists use on a daily basis.
Truth be told, the wonderful world of chemistry is broad and serves as a foundation for many other sciences. This year’s award simply underscores this pervasive quality and calls to mind a chemistry teacher’s favorite question: what in the world isn’t chemistry?