Last Night in Portugal

Well it has been a great week. Edgar Gomes, Phong Tran, Helder Maiato and I just finished teaching a week long Graduate Student Course at the University of Coimbra. Here's a photo of us with most of the class just after we finished dinner at a local joint.


Despite my wonderful week, I did miss out on the Nobel gossip. There was a lack of reliable wireless internet at the hotel and I wasn't able to read or blog much (I am now in Porto at Edgar's parents house using their wireless connection). Scrolling through Scienceblogs yesterday afternoon, I noticed the lack of commentary about the controversy over who was excluded for the Chemistry award (is this a sign that Sciencebloggers should be writing more about ... science?) Hopefully I'll post something about this issue when I get back to Toronto. But in the meanwhile please post your thoughts about why the Nobel committee decided to exclude Noller and Moore from the honoree list.

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What's the logic behind handing out all these awards to researchers who doggedly managed to get a protein to crystallize? I don't get it...perhaps someone could set me straight.

Having said that...Noller has done quite a bit more than crystallize proteins. He was one of the first to show that RNA is integral to the complex, and was the first to demonstrate RNA's role in catalysis in ribosomes.

He was one of the first to show that RNA is integral to the complex, and was the first to demonstrate RNA's role in catalysis in ribosomes.
RNA being a catalyst while great was not novel nor going to lead to new antibiotics directly. The latter is what has been brought about because of the crystallography. The structure has also opened big questions into how the ribosome catalyzes the pepidtyl transfer reaction. The crystallography work is what got the Nobel. Noller got scooped in that regard. The Stetiz PNAS paper that calls into question the 70S model Noller had probably didn't help Noller's cause. Of the Yale effort, Tom Steitz is the crystallographer. I think Steitz did highlight Peter Moore's importance in his remarks to the press.

By ponderingfool (not verified) on 11 Oct 2009 #permalink

If you read the Nobel scientific review, this jumps out:
"When the structures of the two ribosomal subunits had been obtained at high resolution, it was clear that a radical change in the boundary conditions of ribosome research had occurred. One finding that initially caught considerable attention was that the peptidyl-transferase centre, where peptide bond formation is catalyzed (Figure 2), seemed to lack ribosomal protein components. In fact, there was no visible peptide chain within 18Ã from the identified peptidyl-transferase centre (Nissen et al., 2000), which by many was taken as the ultimate proof of previous suggestions, e.g. (Noller et al., 1992), that the ribosome is a ribozyme, i.e. an enzyme deriving its catalytic power from RNA and not protein. "

"Previous suggestions" -- no citation of Crick, who actually, you know, suggested it, and certainly not the (more correct) "Noller's discovery that..."

The review also contains two or three mentions of Noller's structural results, emphasizing their lower resolution, and omits mention of his other mechanistic-biochemical contributions, e.g. to translocation and the A-P-E model, altogether. The structures would be less meaningful -- vastly less meaningful -- without Noller's enzymological work.

They are not going to give another ribosome prize; this is how they justify it. Pretty damned unpleasant, in my opinion.

So a week after the announcement and there hasn't been that much press yet. The NY Times had one article with lines like:

"That much biologists knew by the 1960s, but they could not go any farther without understanding the detailed structure of the ribosome, a forbidding task since it contains hundreds of thousands of atoms."

Totally writing off key work by Noller, Moore and others ... that's sad.

This is probably one of the most important Nobels in a while, yet have science journalists stepped up to the plate to explain to the lay person the significance of this work. I guess the oldest and arguably the most central biological molecule is not important enough to be appreciated in the public sphere.