Born 22 June 1939 in the Guela quarter in Jerusalem, Ada Yonath is the oldest daughter of Hillel and Esther Livshitz.
At that time, the area of Palestine was under British control. World War I left Palestine and other territories of the freshly defeated Ottoman Empire in limbo. The 1920 document issued by the League of Nations granted the British government control over a swath of land in the middle east.⁹
Yonath’s parents were Polish immigrants. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post in 2008, Yonath recalled that, “My parents were Zionists born in Poland. My father was a rabbi who didn’t know much about science and ran a grocery store in the neighborhood with my mother’s help.”²
Mass immigration of Jewish folk to the Israeli/Palestinian area, known as Aliyahs has been long documented. The First Aliyah started in 1881 in response to progroms selectively attacking Jewish communities.
Many moved from eastern Europe, and some from Yemen. The term “First Aliyah” is debated among scholars as Jewish immigration to Palestine was occurring prior to this mass movement.³
The Fifth Aliyah began in response to the rise of Nazism in Europe around roughly 1933. This is around the time that Esther and Hillel Livshitz immigrated. Many Jewish folk fled from Germany, and movement from eastern Europe to the Holy Land kicked up again. Due to government restrictions on immigration, the movement known as Aliyah Bet began, or clandestine movement into Israel.
It is well documented that Yonath and her family grew up in poverty. In an interview with The UNESCO Courier, Yonath stated that, “… survival was difficult. My father had a little grocery shop. He died when I was 11. I had a baby sister [Nurit]. We had very little income, so I had to work. I had a million jobs − cleaning floors, washing dishes, giving tuition to younger kids, babysitting…”¹
During her youth, Yonath was encouraged to explore and learn about her world. One young experiment consisting of measuring the height of their room from floor to ceiling resulted in a broken arm. Another, seeing whether kerosene traveled faster than water, ended in an unexpected fire when her father came out to smoke.
Yonath attended a state run elementary school in the well-known Beit Hakerem neighborhood.
After her father’s death, the family moved to Tel Aviv. Yonath attended the Tichon Hadash high school. She recalls her time there, “In high school, there was a chemistry lab and one of my jobs was to clean it. There I could perform my own experiments on the side! I used to get up at 5.30 in the morning, and had my first student at 6 a.m. – I taught mathematics and chemistry. I had long days and very little sleep, but it didn’t bother me.”
Like all Israeli youth, Yonath served her allotted time in the Israeli armed forces. Conscription completed, Yonath returned to her studies at Hebrew University.
Yonath graduated with a bachelors in chemistry in 1962; she continued on to complete her Masters degree in biochemistry in 1964.
In an interview with Magdolna Hargittai for the book, “Candid Science IV: More Conversations With Famous Scientists”, Yonath described her time in college:
“During the first two years we had plenty of organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and physical chemistry, but hardly any biochemistry. By then I had decided that my interest was in biophysics and biochemistry.”⁶
In 1968, Yonath received her PhD from Weizmann institute for X-ray crystallography and her work on the structure of collagen. This was an uncertain path for Yonath as she was more interested in protein crystallography, a subject that was still developing.
Advisor Dr. Wolfie Traub suggested that Yonath try fiber crystallography, which ended her up in collagen research.
Yonath went on to conduct post graduate research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Here, she researched muscles but continued to have a desire to study proteins. The year was 1969. Led Zepplin had released its first album in the USA and followed up with Led Zepplin II later in the year, the Beatles had their last live performance on the roof of Apple Records, Abbey Road was released, Soyuz 4 and 5 were launched, Woodstock rocked out, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus first airs on BBC One.
In 1970, Yonath would accept and move to a position at MIT, in the lab of F. Albert Cotton. This would be a turning point in her career, as she was able to learn and perform protein crystallography – something she had wanted to do since graduating from her undergraduate program roughly eight years ago.
It was by this time that Yonath was married and had one daughter, Hagit. Not much is known about Yonath’s personal life, but it is known that Hagit was a young age when Yonath was working at MIT.
Yonath recalls that she had a good working relationship with William N. Lipscomb Jr., who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize in 1976 for his work with boranes, compounds that contain boron and hydrogen and usually only exhibit single bonds. This research was part inspired, part supported by his past work under Linus Pauling at the California Technical Institute.
“Following the two years in America, I returned to Israel, and started my own group in protein crystallography. I was alone in the entire country,” Yonath said. “I had an instrument and some limited lab space, and it took almost half a decade before things started working.”
It was also during this time that Yonath established a healthy working relationship with Michel Ravel at the Weizmann Institute. She went on to take a sabbatical at the University of Chicago in 1978 to 1979 as a visiting professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Theoretical Biology, today split into two departments: Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.
Yonath stayed in Israel until 1979, when she got an opportunity to work at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin with Dr. H.G. Wittmann. Roughly a year before, Wittmann had spoken about ribosomes at a conference in Canada – specifically the sequence of initiation proteins needed to start protein creation. After connecting, Yonath and Wittmann decided to collaborate on the subject area.
It is here that we should address what, how, and where ribosomes are. Ribosomes are an integral part of organism function. These organelles are found in the cytoplasm and endoplasmic reticulum of eukaryotic cells and in the cytosol of prokaryotes.
Ribosomes are on the tail end of genetic expression. Known as ‘transcription’, the ribosome organelle moves along a strand of DNA (or RNA), reading each set of three nucleotides (known as a codon), and then ‘translate’ that sequence into amino acids.
Ribosomes are asymmetrical in shape, and have three specific areas for the genetic code to attach. This is usually helped with the presence of ‘initiation factors’, small proteins or molecules used to streamline the process. Asymmetricality helps ensure that whatever binds to the ‘activation site’ is supposed to be there (think like fitting two puzzle pieces together).
Yonath arrived in Berlin in November of 1979, following a head injury that required her to stay grounded for five months until cleared for air travel. By this time, the initiation factors had been almost completely mapped. This was mostly what she wanted to focus on, but as the information had already been gathered, she had some wiggle room. Her daughter Hagit was approximately 16 years old at the time.
With an excess of ribosomes from sample bacteria, Yonath attempted to crystallize what hadn’t been before. Many had tried, Aaron Klug, Alex Rich, and famed Chad-bro duo, Jim Watson and Francis Crick.
The trick to protein crystallization is to reach a supersaturated solution. When solids form within a solution, the system in itself strives to reach equilibrium. This requires a balance between enthalpy and entropy, actively encouraging the system to spend as little energy as possible during reformation. Crystallization requires a very negative enthalpy value to overcome the loss of entropy the system experiences as it forms crystals. ⁴
To put it simply, the energy the system loses during this process must be restored and used for crystal growth.
Despite only spending two months in Berlin, Yonath stayed up to date on the protein crystal growth. She would move back to Jerusalem to continue her work at Weizmann. In three to four months, micro-crystals were observed to be growing in the solution. From 1979 – 1984, Yonath and Planck Institute researchers collaborated on this ribosomal crystal growth.
In the next decades Yonath would continue to head her lab at Weizmann University tangential to leading a research unit at the Max Planck Institute at DESY, or the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron. DESY continues to be a leading force in scientific research to this day.
In 1993, Yonath and her lab were able to determine the pathway that newly created proteins would take in the ribosomal “tunnel”, eventually being folded into the appropriate shape before being released into the system.
The start of the new millennium brought in new technologies and practices to the X-ray diffraction world. In 2000 and 2001, Yonath was able to create high-quality models of ribosomal subunits. This was one of the clearest pictures that scientists had to date, and revealed the charming and odd nature of the ribosome.⁵
Yonath and her team were able to determine that while the outside of ribosomal units are largely asymmetrical but internal structures were symmetrical.
2002 was a momentous year for Yonath as she was awarded the Israel Prize. The Israel Prize is regarded as one of the highest cultural honors an Israeli citizen could achieve.⁵
The Israel Prize is awarded to individuals or organizations involved in one of four different areas: humanities, social sciences, and Jewish studies; the sciences; culture, arts, sports, and/or communications; or for a lifetime achievement and exceptional contribution to the Israeli nation (this has been in effect since 1972).
Since 2004, Yonath has been the director of the Helen and Milton A Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly of the Weizmann Institute of Science. She is also a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, among other organizations. She was granted the Albert Einstein World Award of Science for her contributions to ribosomal knowledge and her development of techniques in cryo bio-crystallography.
In 2009, Yonath was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Ventkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz. Yonath, along with her other co-recipients, was awarded for, “…studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”⁵
In an interview with UNESCO, Yonath remarked on her Nobel recipience that, “Now I can do something for young people. Before I got the prize, very few young people said they would opt for science, in a poll in Tel Aviv. The day after the Nobel ceremony, a similar street poll showed the number of those interested in science had gone up by forty per cent. Even if only ten percent of these youth take up science, I will feel I did something good.”¹
It has been addressed that Yonath is the fourth woman to earn a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 45 years since Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1964. While this is another moment for recognition of femme-presenting scientists, Yonath has her own commentary:
“There are many more women in physiology and medicine. I don’t think the Nobel Committee is anti-women − they gave their prize to Marie Curie twice.
There are fewer women in science because society doesn’t encourage women to become scientists − even societies that are supposedly open and liberal. Sentences like: “Don’t try to be clever, you’ll never find a husband”, or “Don’t choose a demanding career, you won’t have a good family life”, are frequently repeated. In some societies it’s said directly, in others indirectly. It’s the same in politics, art, any demanding profession. This is even more so in science because it may imply that the women are cleverer than the men.”¹
Yonath continues to serve as the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professional Chair. Helen Kimmel has been a long supporter of Yonath’s research and Weizmann University.
“Many helped me along certain parts of the way. But only one was a real partner throughout this entire marathon. That was Helen Kimmel,” Yonath said. “As a scientist, having a generous donor who cares about your research and is there to give you backing can make all the difference in truly advancing the field.”
In 2019, at 80 years of age, Yonath is still researching strong. In a self-written piece with the Nobel Prize committee, she stated that, “And in the future? We plan on looking to the distant past. Ribosomes are found in every living being – from yeast and bacteria to mammals – and the structures of their active sites have been extraordinarily well-preserved throughout evolution.”⁸
Read some of her papers!
“Hollows, voids, gaps and tunnels in the ribosome”– A. Yonath; Z. Berkovitch-Yellin (1993).
“Approaching Atomic Resolution is Crystallography of Ribosomes” – A. Yonath. (1992)
“Elucidating the medium-resolution structure of ribosomal particles: an interplay between electron cryo-microscopy and X-ray crystallography” – A. Yonath, J. Harms, A. Tocilj, I. Levin, A. Bashan, F. Franceschi. (1999)
- Nolan, C. “Ada E. Yonath: The challenge of science is like climbing Mount Everest”. The UNESCO Courier. 2018. https://en.unesco.org/courier/2018-1/ada-e-yonath-challenge-science-climbing-mount-everest
- Siegel-Itzkovitch, J. “Former ‘village fool’ takes the prize”. The Jerusalem Post, 2009. https://web.archive.org/web/20120117223623/http://fr.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1204546432149&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
- Jewish Virtual Library. “The First Aliyah” (1882 – 1903). https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-first-aliyah-1882-1903
- Wikipedia. “Protein Crystallization”. Last edited Nov. 2, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_crystallization
- Wikipedia. “Ada E. Yonath”. Last edited Oct. 5, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Yonath
- Hargittai, I., Hargittai, M. “Candid Science IV: More Conversations with Famous Scientists”. Imperial College Press. 2006. (pp. 390-401)
- “The Kimmel Effect”. Weizmann Magazine, vol. 1. http://www.weizmann.ac.il/WeizmannCompass/sections/people-behind-the-science/the-kimmel-effect Sept. 28. 2014
- Yonath, A.E. “Ada E. Yonath, Biographical” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2009/yonath/biographical/
- Wikipedia. “Mandate for Palestine” Last edited Nov. 5, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandate_for_Palestine
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