Key progress by Weizmann scientists in the race to unravel ribosomal structure

December 06, 1999

NEW YORK - December 7, 1999 -- A team of Weizmann Institute and Max-Planck Society scientists has determined the structure of the small ribosomal subunit at the highest resolution ever achieved, including the site where protein biosynthesis begins.

Ribosomes, the universal cellular organelles responsible for protein production, are essential to life. Receiving genetically encoded instructions from the cell nucleus, the ribosomal factory churns out proteins - the body's primary component and the basis of all enzymatic reactions. Understanding protein biosynthesis is therefore the gateway to grasping life itself, and its darker side - the emergence of disease - when production goes haywire.

The importance of the ribosome explains why it has been the target of numerous biochemical, biophysical, and genetic studies. However, throughout nearly four decades of research, these pivotal biological units have stubbornly "resisted" scientific attempts to reveal their detailed functional design.

In order to examine microscopic structures scientists expose crystals of the material in question to high intensity x-ray beams - a method known as x-ray crystallography. However, the ribosome, a notoriously unstable giant protein complex, represents a daunting crystallographic challenge. To further complicate matters, it also lacks the internal symmetry and repetitions that eased the way to understanding the structure of other biological entities, such as viruses.

Nevertheless, using novel crystallographic techniques, Professor Ada Yonath of Weizmann's Department of Structural Biology and the Max-Planck Research Units for Ribosomal Structure in Hamburg and Berlin, has now overcome this obstacle. Her study, due to appear in the December issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), introduces an electron density map of the small ribosomal subunit from bacterium Thermus thermophilus.

The uniqueness of Yonath's approach lies in phasing - designing heavy atoms as markers that stand out like flares in the ribosomal map due to their high electron density. These markers significantly enhance the ability to pinpoint functional units within the ribosome. And the resultant image, constructed from twice as much diffraction data as collected elsewhere, provides a far-reaching glimpse into the microscopic ribosomal world, revealing certain outstanding, heretofore unobserved features.

Opening the Ribosomal Gate

Ribosomes consist of two independent subunits of unequal size. It is on "30S", the smaller subunit, that Yonath set her sites. More specifically, she wanted to capture "snapshots" of 30S in its active form - during the precise moment that protein biosynthesis begins. To do so, her team had to first activate the ribosomal particles within the crystal lattice as well as trigger protein biosynthesis. Both tasks called for a creative stretch of scientific imagination.

Crystals limit molecular motion, thereby impeding conformational changes. Since controlled heating had previously been shown to enhance ribosomal activation, Yonath decided to take a chance at heating up the crystals despite concerns that this would cause their disintegration.

Next, the team introduced an analogue of messenger RNA - a molecular "go-between" arriving from the nucleus, which triggers protein biosynthesis. "The messenger has to attach itself to a specific site in order to open the gate to protein production, which is essentially kept under lock and key," explains Yonath. Once activated and bound, it was time to record the 30S subunit "in the act" - a feat accomplished by flash freezing the crystals through sudden exposure to cryo-temperature (-185 Celsius).

Yonath's findings are the result of almost twenty years of determined experimentation into largely uncharted territories. In the course of her pursuit, she became the first scientist to successfully create ribosomal crystals that diffract to high resolution, around 3 angstroms. (1A = 10 ­10 meter).

Her quest for durable crystals also gave rise to two novel approaches: the use of ribosomal material from hardy bacterial strains isolated from the Dead Sea and cryo-cystallography. This method, which later became standard research procedure in structural biology, is based on exposing crystals to cryo-temperature during x-ray measurements in order to minimize their disintegration.

Future Prospects

The achievements generated by Yonath's team indicate that the road to near-atomic resolution of ribosomal structures is closer than ever before. Their approach and procedures have recently been repeated by a growing contingent of international researchers - all racing to elucidate the mystery of ribosomal functioning. According to Yonath, this understanding should pave the way to improved antibiotics, targeting bacterial agents at the ribosomal level. Additionally, the enhanced understanding of normal protein biosynthesis may one day improve the ability to fight the pathogenic, uncontrolled protein production characteristic of cancer cells.

Prof. Ada Yonath holds the Martin S. Kimmel Professorial Chair. This research was funded by the Max-Planck Society, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the German Ministry for Science and Technology and the Kimmelman Center for Macromolecular Assembly at the Weizmann Institute.

The Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world's foremost centers of scientific research and graduate study. Its 2,500 scientists, students, technicians and engineers pursue basic research in the quest for knowledge and the enhancement of humanity. New ways of fighting disease and hunger, protecting the environment, and harnessing alternative sources of energy are high priorities at Weizmann.

American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science

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