Meet the 2023 Grimwade Medallist - Nobel Prize Winner Prof Venki Ramakrishnan

The Grimwade Medal promotes the discipline of biochemistry and molecular biology by inviting a stellar researcher each year to visit the University, this year Prof Venki Ramakrishnan from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, will be presented with the accolade and give an oration ‘My adventures in the ribosome’.

Professor Ramakrishnan was born into a family of scientists, he is a Nobel Prize winner, was the voice of the British scientific community during Brexit, and at the age of 8 spent a year in Adelaide. In the lead up to the Grimwade Medal Oration at the Bio21 Institute Auditorium on Thursday 1 February, we wanted to learn more about the extraordinary life and work of Prof Venki Ramakrishnan.

Biography

Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics (Barody University, India 1971) and PhD in Physics (Ohio University 1976), before discovering a passion for biology and pivoting his career. He studied biology at University of California, San Diego, before beginning his postdoctoral work with Peter Moore at Yale University. After a long career in the USA at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Utah, he moved to England in 1999, where he has been a group leader at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 and was the president of the Royal Society from 2015-2020.

In 2000, his laboratory determined the atomic structure of the 30S ribosomal subunit and its complexes with ligands and antibiotics. This work led to insights into how the ribosome “reads” the genetic code, as well as antibiotic function. Ramakrishnan’s lab subsequently determined high-resolution structures of functional complexes of the entire ribosome at various stages along the translational pathway, which led to insights into its role in protein synthesis during decoding, peptidyl transfer, translocation and termination.

Early Life and Work

Venki was born into a family of scientists - his father C.V. Ramakrishnan, would become head of the new Department of Biochemistry at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and his mother R. Rajalakshmi, who taught at Annamalai University would obtain a PhD in Psychology at McGill University before working alongside each other in what would become a lifelong collaboration of their work.

My childhood and adolescence were filled with visiting scientists from both India and abroad, many of whom would stay with us. A life of science struck me as being both interesting and particularly international in its character.

Venki was 18 when he completed his bachelor’s degree in physics, having skipped two year levels in primary school, this young age impacted graduate school opportunities initially, and one month after turning 19 arrived in America to take a position at Ohio University.

“I was absolutely thrilled to be going to graduate school in the U.S.A., a land I associated with many of the great scientists whose textbooks I had studied, including Feynman, Purcell and others.”

In graduate school Venki felt he had chosen the wrong field. He lost interest in his work, at the same time an interest in biology articles in Scientific American grew, where it appeared major breakthroughs in the life sciences were occurring almost monthly.

“I made a mistake in choosing theory over experiment for my thesis work.”

During this time Venki met Vera Rosenberry, a painting major, whom he would marry. The new responsibilities of marriage and parenthood would inspire him to forge ahead, complete a passable physics thesis, and switch career focus to biology.

“My first year in UCSD (University of California San Diego) was tremendously exciting. For the first time in my life, I was at a university that was at the forefront of international research.”

It was in his second year that Venki read an article in Scientific American by Don Engelman and Peter Moore about their ribosome work and became interested. He wrote to Don Engelman and subsequently met with Peter Moore, and in early 1978 was offered a postdoctoral position on their ribosome project at Yale. This was the beginning of a lifelong interest in ribosomes.

“The specialized methods I learned in Peter’s lab were invaluable to me twenty years later when I started tackling the structure of the 30S subunit that led to the Nobel Prize.”

As the postdoctoral work in Peter Moore’s Lab at Yale finished, Venki realised his unusual career path being a physicist turned biologist using an esoteric technique like neutron scattering was far from in-demand. Set backs in work and research would follow until he commenced a staff scientist position at Brookhaven National Laboratory that came with appropriate support and the freedom for independent research.

If he wanted to get tenure, Venki needed to show independence and could not continue the work of Peter Moore’s lab, despite this Venki’s first experiment was on ribosomes- to settle an emerging controversy about whether the proteins and RNA in the 30S subunit were asymmetrically distributed. This work resulted in Venki’s first independent paper being a single author paper in Science.

“Since this was a decade before the internet, I wrote a letter to my father in India when it was accepted, and about a month later received his reply saying that he was glad I had made a good start, and that if I continued to work hard, I might someday even have a paper in Nature!”

Venki was awarded tenure after a few years, and his work moved into crystallography which led him to take a one-year sabbatical and apply for the Guggenheim Fellowship at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRCLMB) in Cambridge England.

Returning to Brookhaven after experiencing a year of the energy and stimulation of the MRCLMB, and with Brookhaven now favouring large projects, Venki sought a change and reached out to colleagues. He accepted a position in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Utah, where there were a lot of people interested in ribosomes and RNA.

“I very much liked both the faculty at Utah and the spectacular location of Salt Lake City, nestled in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains.”

After setting up his laboratory, assembling a brilliant and enthusiastic team, Venki's lab was almost entirely focused on solving ribosomal protein structures.

“Even before coming to Utah, I had ideas of solving the structure of the ribosome, beginning with its small or 30S subunit.”

“I decided that the structure of the ribosome was the most important goal in my field, the time was ripe for an attack on it, and it would be a mistake to be distracted from it by other projects because there was only a narrow window of opportunity before other groups entered the field that had so long been dominated by just one person, Ada Yonath.”

Venki realised he needed to move his lab to the MRCLMB in Cambridge where there was a longstanding tradition of supporting exactly this kind of difficult but fundamentally important project. Also, it was considered the birthplace of crystallography and many technical developments had occurred there, Venki knew from his experiences during his one-year sabbatical that this was the place to access world leaders in crystallographic methodology who could help if he ran into technical problems.

The preceding ribosome work led to invitations to give seminars and speak at conferences. It resulted in the election to the Royal Society (subsequently president from 2015-2020), the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and also led to the prestigious European prize, the 2007 Louis-Jeantet prize for medicine. As well as the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2009 with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath.

"Thus in both my scientific efforts and the recognition for it, I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”

Taken from Venkatraman Ramakrishnan – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Wed. 29 Nov 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2009/ramakrishnan/biographical/>

Grimwade Medallist Oration

Register for the Grimwade Medallist Oration via Eventbrite by 17 January 2024: