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A Cambridge biochemist named a Nobel Prize winner Wednesday made his early breakthroughs while a professor at the University of Utah in the late 1990s. This work laid the foundation for high-resolution mapping of cells' "protein factories," or ribosomes, a discovery leading to improved antibiotics and garnering Venkatraman "Venki" Ramakrishnan science's top honor.
"This work began in Utah, where I had wonderful and supportive colleagues who encouraged me in this effort," he wrote in an e-mail to The Salt Lake Tribune .
"We're totally delighted by this. The department is thrilled for Venki. He's a wonderful guy and an excellent scientist," said Dana Carroll, a U. professor of biochemistry and former department chairman who helped recruit Ramakrishnan in 1995 from the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.
Ramakrishnan took a pay cut when he left the U. for England in 1999, but the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) at Cambridge, where several past Nobel winners have worked, guaranteed something Utah could not.
"The key reason he moved was that the level of expertise of X-ray crystallography and infrastructural support they could offer and stability of funding are things we couldn't match," Carroll said. "For someone in structural biology, the LMB is the dream job."
Ramakrishnan shares the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas A. Steitz of Yale University and Israeli scientist Ada Yonath. They will divide the $1.4 million award for their atom-by-atom description of ribosomes, regarded as the key to life. They use instructions from genes to make thousands of proteins that control what happens in the body.
Since many antibiotics kill bacteria by attacking their ribosomes, these detailed descriptions are being used to develop new drugs.
"It will be important because infectious agents are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Our armory to fight these agents is shrinking," Carroll said.
The three scientists worked independently and published their results simultaneously in 2000. They used a technique in which they shower the ribosome with X-rays. By analyzing the way the rays scatter, they identified the positions of millions of individual atoms in the ribosome.
Nobel rules limit the award to three recipients in any one category, but Carroll believes Harry Noller of the University of California, Santa Cruz should share a piece of the honor for his work in ribosome function.
U. officials said they wish they could retain their up-and-coming superstars like Ramakrishnan, but that is not always realistic given the university's funding picture.
"Other faculty have built their careers here, then have been attracted elsewhere and done great things. We take pride and should take a certain kind of credit," said Tom Parks, the U.'s vice president for research. "We have leaders like Dana Carroll and Gordon Lark who spot talent at a young age. We don't have the money to hire the people who are already famous. We have to spot the talent and nurture it."
Lark is the former biology department chair who recruited geneticist Mario Capecchi away from Harvard University years ago. As a U. professor, Capecchi developed the process of gene targeting, a biomedical breakthrough that won a Lasker award, then the Nobel Prize two years ago -- all the while resisting offers to conduct his groundbreaking research elsewhere.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Age » 57
Birthplace » Chidambaram, India. Now a U.S. citizen
Family » Married to children's book author Vera Rosenberry. They have two adult children.
Career » Since 1999, he worked at Laboratory Molecular Biology (LMB) of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, where he used X-ray crystallography to map the atomic structures of ribosomes, the compounds that read genetic code into proteins.
Education » Earned his doctorate in physics from Ohio University in 1976.
Utah tie » University of Utah biochemistry professor, 1995 to 2000.