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Everyone has heard of DNA. But by itself, DNA is just an inert blueprint for life. It is the ribosome—an enormous molecular machine made up of a million atoms—that makes DNA come to life, turning our genetic code into proteins, and therefore into who we are. Until quite recently, though, how that machine worked was a mystery.
In 2009, structural biologist Venki Ramakrishnan and two other scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for uncovering the structure of the ribosome, a fundamental discovery that advances our knowledge of all life and could lead to the development of better antibiotics against life-threatening diseases.
Drawing from his new book, Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome, Ramakrishnan offers an overview of the ribosome and how it functions. He traces the process by which he and his colleagues mapped the elusive molecule’s structure—one that made them participants in a fierce rivalry among some of the world’s top scientists. He also provides insights into the human side of science—one filled with egos, blunders, competition, and collaboration—and how politics and prizes can have a corrupting influence on the field.
Ramakrishnan is a senior scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, and was elected president of the Royal Society of London in 2015.
Copies of Gene Machine (Basic Books) are available for purchase and signing.
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Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)