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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Back where it all began

By Deborah Rafferty

Venkatraman “Venki” Ramakrishnan honored the work that started at the U and might one day turn the tide in the war against infections as part of the Benning Society Lecture Series on Wednesday night.

Ramakrishnan received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for mapping the structure of ribosomes, which might allow researchers to develop more effective antibiotics. Ramakrishnan offered to come to speak at the U in an e-mail he sent to his former colleagues with the news of his award, eager to give credit to those that had supported him during his research, said Wesley Sundquist, professor and co-chairman of biochemistry. But despite the

excitement, his speech carried in it a dire forecast for the medical world.

Throughout his speech, Ramakrishnan warned of the effects of abusing antibiotics. After penicillin was discovered, there was a sharp increase in resistance, he said. A main problem in Western civilization is staph infections, a common illness for post-surgical patients, he said. This strain of bacteria is resistant to all but one form of penicillin, and there are other types of bacteria that are resistant to all forms of antibiotics, he said.

“One thing I can be sure (of): if we use antibiotics, resistance will occur,” Ramakrishnan said.

He also said that when people get the flu, they demand they receive antibiotics. About a million prescriptions filled are actually useless, he said.

“There are many aspects we still don’t understand,” Ramakrishnan said. “There is still a lot of work to be done.”

That work started here with Ramakrishnan in the 1990s, before he left the U for Columbia University for more consistent research funding.

Ribosomes are a part of the cell that creates proteins from the genetic code stored in the human genome. Proteins are used throughout the body, used for all sorts of purposes, including circulating oxygen in the blood to giving the eye the ability to sense light.

To create an image of the structure of ribosomes, Ramakrishnan used a type of X-ray based on crystals. Crystals were grown that surround a specific part of a cell, which is then put into a loop and frozen with liquid nitrogen. He then bounced X-rays off the crystals, amplifying the signal to create a 3-D image of the ribosome structure, Ramakrishnan said. With this imaging of the structure, researchers can view the entire process of how proteins are made, he said.

“I realized I was seeing scientific history in the making,” Sundquist said about watching Ramakrishnan work in the lab. “It was a lot of fun to watch him succeed. It was a thrill for all of us when we found out that Venki had won the Nobel Prize.”

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Tyler Cobb

Venki Ramakrishnan speaks on the research that founded the work he performed that led to his eventual Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ramakrishnan was a professor of biochemisty at the U from 1995 to 1999.

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