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Brookhaven Lab research leads to Nobel in chemistry

Two Americans and an Israeli scientist were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for chemistry Wednesday for showing how ribosomes translate the DNA code into life - work that led to the development of new antibiotics.

Ribosomes are the parts within cells that interpret genetic information to make proteins. The researchers mapped their precise atomic structure using a method called X-ray crystallography, work done in part at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton.

Their work spurred development of new antibiotics that cure diseases, "directly assisting in the saving of lives and decreasing humanity's suffering," according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize.

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, started his preliminary work on ribosomes when he was a biologist at BNL and returned as a visiting researcher. He and Thomas A. Steitz of Yale University both used the Brookhaven Lab's National Synchrotron Light Source, which generates intense beams of infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray light, to produce images of the ribosome complex's molecules.

"We played an unbelievably lucky role in getting both of these projects started and it was incredibly exciting to watch these structures unfold," said Robert Sweet, a BNL biophysicist and head of the group that operates the light source.

Ramakrishnan, 57, and Steitz, 69, used the lab's facilities from 1998 to 2000, said spokeswoman Karen McNulty Walsh. Some work was done elsewhere, she said.

The third winner, Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography to study ribosomes - something most researchers considered impossible when she first began her experiments. The method aims X-rays at crystals of proteins. Scientists measure how the rays scatter after they hit the crystal's atoms to determine their structure, the academy said.

Yonath, 70, labored for decades to produce stable ribosome crystals, paving the way for other winners' work. The $1.4-million prize will be shared equally by the three scientists. They all published 2000 papers mapping the atomic structure of the ribosome complex, which has two parts.

discovering an enzyme, telomerase, that maintains the lengths of the telomeres - the tails at the ends of chromosomes that become shorter as a cell divides.

With Delthia Ricks

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