Biology professor Joan Steitz was understandably groggy when she was awoken by a ringing telephone at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday.
When Steitz answered, a refined female voice with a slight accent asked to speak with Tom.
“Just a minute,” Joan answered, starting to figure out what was going on.
The caller was from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Tom was her husband, Thomas Steitz, a Sterling professor in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale. The woman was calling to tell him he had won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Steitz shares the award and the $1.4 million prize with Israeli researcher Ada Yonath and American scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. The trio independently, and nearly simultaneously, mapped cellular protein factories — a breakthrough that is now helping other scientists to fight diseases such as tuberculosis.
Using high-powered X-rays, the three researchers created a three-dimensional, atom-by-atom model of a ribosome, the part of the cell that helps make proteins. Armed with knowledge of the exact structure of ribosomes, other scientists can now create antibiotics that attack bacterial ribosomes, effectively killing the bacteria.
Steitz, who began his research on ribosomes in the early 1990s, published his results in Science Magazine in 1999, about the same time that Yonath and Ramakrishnan published their own studies. At a press conference Wednesday, Steitz, 69, said while scientists at the time had an idea of how ribosomes worked, the precise structure was uncharted territory.
“When we began back in 1995, mapping the ribosome seemed like climbing Mount Everest,” he said. “We didn’t know how to get there, or what route to take. We just had to peer into the structure and see how it worked.”
Indeed, in the 1980s, X-ray machines and funding were hard to come by in structural biology labs, Steitz said, which made the field unappealing for many other scientists. But Steitz — inspired by the work of James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered of the structure of DNA — persevered.
“His relentless pursuit to solve a puzzle at the very foundation of biology inspires us, not only by its intellectual rigor but also by its potential for the treatment of infectious diseases,” University President Richard Levin said at Wednesday’s press conference. “His work is a compelling example of how a quest to answer fundamental questions about life processes can lead to dramatic benefits for mankind.”
Steitz’s colleagues and students said they were thrilled with the Nobel Committee’s decision.
Chris Ritacco GRD ’10 and Richard Wing GRD ’10, who both work in Steitz’s lab, spoke of a man who was not only a brilliant researcher but also a helpful mentor.
“You’re learning from the best when working for Steitz,” Ritacco said.
Another student, Garrett Cobb GRD ’15, said he was struck by how humble Steitz was despite his achievements.
Yale chemistry professor Peter Moore, who has known Steitz since they were graduate students together at Harvard, said he was delighted to learn of his colleague’s Nobel. Moore said he counts himself lucky to have had a chance to collaborate with Steitz on his Nobel-winning research.
Though Steitz’s interest in cell structure began when he was a first-year graduate student at Harvard, he has spent the past 39 years at Yale. He thanked the University for its support Wednesday.
“I hope this is interpreted as an indication of how important Yale is to research,” Steitz said. “I can’t say if this would have happened anywhere else because Yale is a community, which was absolutely pivotal in this research.”
Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, said researchers at Yale have long been pioneers in cell research. In 1989, Sterling Professor Sidney Altman also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for his work on RNA, which carries information for cells.
The selection process for a Nobel Prize is a long one. The Nobel Committee for Chemistry sends confidential forms to experts, and their nominations stay secret for 50 years.
The Nobel laureates in chemistry are selected by a committee that consists of five members elected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which is non-governmental. The official Nobel Prize Award Ceremony will be held in Stockholm, Sweden, in December.
The prize is named for 19th-century chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.
Correction: October 11, 2009
A previous version of this article contained several errors. Joan Steitz, wife of Nobel laureate Thomas Steitz, is a Sterling professor of molecular biology and biophysics, not chemistry. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who shared the prize, is an American, not a British, scientist. And Alfred Nobel, the namesake of the prize, invented dynamite, not TNT.