Structural Biochemistry/Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

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Venkatraman Ramakrishnan at 2009 Nobel Prize Press Conference

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is an Indian-born American Structural Biologist. Born in Chidambaram in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, India, he spent his life with his highly educated parents. His father headed the biochemistry department at the Maharaj Sayajirao University in Baroda and his mother obtained a Ph.D in psychology. When his mother could not find a position in Baroda's psychology department, she helped his father in his research instead with fellow scientists. They eventually collaborated in their work and greatly influenced Ramakrishnan's scientific interest from a young age.

Through the influence of both his parents, Ramakrishnan became interested in science as a young student, which led him to partake his undergraduate studies in Physics at the same university his parents taught at, Maharaj Sayajirao University in Baroda. He also credits his interest in science being due to a few inspiring teachers and professors from his childhood and his college years.

After not getting accepted to the Indian Institute of Science he moved to USA where he obtained a Ph.D. in Physics from Ohio University. After completing his graduate studies at Ohio University, he then spend two years studying biology at the University of California, San Diego. While there, Ramakrishnan became interested in ribosomal work while in a lab researching lipid bilayers. He was then offered a postdoctoral position at Don Engelmen and Peter Moore's lab working on a ribosome project involving membrane proteins. His work at Moore's lab taught him the valuable techniques for purifying, reconstituting, and assaying ribosomes, which he would later use to study the structure of the 30S subunit (which would win him a Nobel Prize). It was at this lab that Ramakrishnan first started to map the locations of proteins in the 30S subunit by reconstituting ribosomes where proteins were replaced by deuterated counterparts, as well as learn to map out proteins using neutron scattering experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

After an unhappy stay at Oak Ridge's Biology Division, Ramakrishnan found a new position at Brookhaven as a staff scientist where he worked on projects with ribosomes and chromatin. He obtained a tenure to focus on the study of crystallography while on a sabbatical to obtain knowledge to help further his study of ribosomes.

Through some hard work he was able to obtain a position at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England—this laboratory was the birthplace of crystallography. Before leaving to England, Ramakrishnan collected data for ribosomal protein S5 and multiwavelength anamolous diffraction data for crystals of selenomethionyl GH5. While on his sabbatical in England, he eventually solved the structures of both compounds using the data he brought with him. He eventually decided to move to the LMB to work on his ribosome problem. His focus switched entirely to the 30S subunit structure before this move and the proteins within it were later identified. In 2009, along with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. Working with crystals and diffraction patterns, Fourier maps were calculated for the structure. The discovery of the 30S subunit structure led to an understanding of how ribosomes can ensure the accuracy of translation when a genetic message is being decoded. Currently established at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, his lab is interested in studying the structure and function of the ribosome, the large protein-RNA complex that synthesizes proteins using genes encoded in mRNA. His studies have opened new avenues in understanding antibiotic function, along with comprehending the mechanism of tRNA and mRNA recognition and decoding by the ribosome.