The Cambridge Cutting Edge Lecture: Gene Machine

Thurs 7th March 2019 – The Cambridge Cutting Edge Lecture:  Gene Machine

The race for the structure of the ribosome — a study in the sociology of science

Everyone has heard of DNA — the molecule that seems to hold the secrets of all life, but hardly anyone has heard of the ribosome. While DNA is the blueprint for life it rests inertly within our cells. The ribosome is an enormous molecular machine, even more ancient than DNA that translates the information in our genes into proteins. These proteins in turn make up much of our bodies and catalyse thousands of processes within our cells.

A ribosome is a machine no cell can do without, but until recently, how this machine worked was a mystery. As well as being essential for life, its practical importance also lies in the fact that the ribosome is the target of many major antibiotics. A knowledge of the structure of the ribosome is the key to the development of new treatments against deadly infections, so crucial for the future of mankind.

In his lecture Venki Ramakrishnan will outline the extraordinary race between groups of scientists around the world to be the first to uncover the structure of this central element of the human body. It is a story of high science, rivalry, generosity and mutual support. In other words it is a story of humanity uncovering one of the secrets of humanity!

He will also talk about what he calls the Politics of Recognition in science. It is a well-known adage that the essential first step to a Nobel Prize is to work in a lab where there are already Nobel Laureates — is this true and, if so, what does this mean? There have been 12 Nobel Prizes for staff of his own lab since it opened in 1958, as well as 11 for scientists who have spent time there as visitors.

Venki is group leader at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. In 2009 he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ribosomal structure and was knighted in 2012. He is a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina and EMBO, and a Foreign Member of the Indian National Science Academy. In 2015, he was elected as President of the Royal Society for a five-year term.