Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology: The Nobel Prize factory

For the 14th time, the judges have honoured a member of the same lab

Science Editor,Steve Connor
Thursday 08 October 2009 00:00 BST

Yesterday at tea time at Cambridge's Laboratory of Molecular Biology, something a little stronger than the usual brew was being glugged by the scientists gathered on the top floor overlooking Addenbrooke's Hospital.

As the test tubes continued to bubble downstairs, champagne corks flew. Aparty was in full swing to celebrate yet another Nobel Prize success for Britain's most successful research lab. At the centre of festivities was a man who symbolises the international spirit of science – an Indian-born physicist who became an American citizen but has made Britain his professional home.

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, known as "Venki" to his friends and colleagues, yesterday became the recipient of the laboratory's 14th Nobel Prize. The LMB, often described as Britain's factory for Nobel gold medals, can trace its biological roots back to the discovery of the DNA double helix in 1953 by Francis Crick and Jim Watson, two of the lab's previous prize-winners.

Dr Ramakrishnan shares the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Thomas Steitz of Yale University. All three made seminal discoveries working out the three-dimensional atomic arrangement of the ribosome – nanoscopic-sized structures inside every cell that translate the four-letter language of DNA into the many diverse proteins of life.

Understanding ribosomes has been crucial to the discovery of new antibiotics, because so many wonder drugs work by blocking the action of bacterial ribosomes, thereby killing the germs while leaving the human ribosomes of the patient still functioning.

"The laureates of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry have forged an understanding at the atomic level of how nature can transform something as simple as a four-letter code into something as complicated as life itself," said the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which oversees the prize.

"Research driven by curiosity can also, as so many times before, be of practical use. This time it proves useful in the search for new antibiotics."

The mid-morning and afternoon tea breaks at the LMB, which is funded directly by the Medical Research Council, are a tradition dating back to the great, late Max Perutz, another Nobel laureate and former laboratory director whose wife, Gisela, managed the canteen more than half a century ago.

It is a time when the scientists can look up from their microscopes, emerge from their fume cupboards and engage in scholarly, or not-so-scholarly, banter with their colleagues. Yesterday, as so often when the lab wins a Nobel, it turned into a riotous celebration.

"I remember once coming back to the lab after Fred Sanger won his second Nobel [in 1980]," said Richard Henderson, another former director who still works at the LMB. "It was 7.30pm and there were at least a hundred people still in the canteen – and Fred was the only person still standing."

Many of Dr Ramakrishnan's colleagues were not surprised to learn that he had won – he had been tipped to do so since he published his detailed 3D map of a ribosome sub-unit.

Working out the detailed structural map of the ribosome helped to understand how this key element of cells is able to make proteins from the building blocks of amino acids. These miniature protein factories are estimated to make just one mistake in every 100,000 amino acids, working at a manufacturing rate of 20 chemical bonds per second.

Dr Ramakrishnan issued a short statement acknowledging his colleagues and the LMB, which has given its many distinguished scientists the freedom to pursue curiosity-driven research. "The collegiate atmosphere there made it all possible," he said. "The idea of supporting long-term basic research like that at LMB does lead to breakthroughs. The ribosome is already starting to show its medical importance."

*The new permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, has conceeded this week that the Nobel Prize for Literature has become Eurocentric. His comments come after his predecessor, Horace Engdahl, last year pronounced that the Americans would not be winning the Nobel Prize for literature any time soon.

And the winner is... The Cambridge titles


John Sulston, Sydney Brenner and Robert Horovitz won the physiology or medicine prize for "for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death".


John Walker jointly won the chemistry prize for "elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate".


Georges Köhler and César Milstein won the physiology or medicine prize for their co-work on the immune system and the production of monoclonal antibodies.


Aaron Klug won the chemistry prize for developing crystallographic electron microscopy.


Max Perutz and John Kendrew won the chemistry prize for studies on the structures of haemoglobin and globular proteins.


Francis Crick and James Watson won the physiology or medicine prize for discovering the structure of DNA.

1958 & 1980

Fred Sanger was awarded the chemistry prize twice for determining the sequence of amino acids in insulin.

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