Situated in the nucleus of the human cell is DNA, the secret of life discovered by the Nobel Prize laureates Drs. Watson and Crick. More recently, another scientist, Venki Ramakrishnan, PhD, won a Nobel Prize for his work in uncovering another secret within the human cell: the structure of the ribosome and how it functions. Dr. Ramakrishnan is a senior scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom. He won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in cellular mechanics and has recently written a fine book detailing his scientific quest called Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome.
Title: Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome
Author: Venki Ramakrishnan, PhD
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: November 2018
Price: $28.95, hardcover; 288 pages
A Personal Odyssey
GENE MACHINE is a personal story of the author’s trip from student to professor to freethinking experimental scientist, seeking to uncover how cells carry out one of the most fundamental activities: the synthesis of proteins. It is also a story about the scientists behind the white lab coats, driven by elemental human forces such as ego and rivalry.
In the book’s first chapter, Dr. Ramakrishnan tells the compelling story of his decision to leave his homeland of India for America. The author’s first career inclination was to become a theoretical physicist like his hero Richard Feynman. The author studied physics in India, and upon arriving in the United States, he resumed his study path to earn a doctorate in physics.
During this time, he met and married in a union that would enhance his career and life. He writes, “Things suddenly changed in my life when I met Vera Rosenberry, a recently separated woman with a 4-year-old daughter…. We began a stormy courtship that lasted less than a year and got married soon after her divorce was final. At 23, I was married and the stepfather of a 5-year-old. Marriage, however, focused my mind on my career.”
A Dramatic Career Shift
EARLY ON in his marriage, he did some soul searching about physics, a career that might trap him in a lifetime of “boring and incremental calculations that wouldn’t result in any real advance in understanding” or a promising career to care for his new family. Then serendipity struck.
Dr. Ramakrishnan read an article about the ribosome in Scientific American and decided to shift his career path to molecular biology. He first had to spend 2 years as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, to acquire the knowledge to pursue his new career. This dramatic life-altering decision is emblematic of the scientific hutzpah that led him to his discoveries.
The Complexity of the Ribosome
CHAPTER 1 introduces the author, and chapter 2 introduces the ribosome. Mention DNA and almost everyone nods in understanding. It is, after all, what determines the essence of who we are and what traits we pass to our children. But mention the word ribosome, and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare. It is a challenge to write about complex scientific research for both science and lay readers. And, for the most part, the author succeeds, but there are long periods that readers without a science background will likely skip.
“The whole ribosome contains more than a million atoms,” the author writes. “Because it’s the link between our genes and the proteins they specify, the ribosome lies at the very crossroads of life.” He then goes on to explain in detail.
The book is organized into 20 chapters, but the content is essentially a triad: the author’s personal story, the science behind his Nobel Prize–winning discovery, and the politics of high-level science.
SINCE ELECTRON microscopy was just in the developmental stage during most of the author’s work, he and his contemporaries used the older technique of x-ray crystallography, which became the main tool to decipher the ribosome’s structure. Although Dr. Ramakrishnan labors at defining crystallography, it gets muddied in overly scientific jargon. Not surprisingly, the colorful cast of scientists involved in the frantic race to crystalize the ribosome adds rich texture to the narrative.
A pilot once described flying a commercial airliner as countless hours of boredom and seconds of sheer terror. Bench research could be described similarly, countless hours of frustration and then the rare moment of discovery: “Seeing the atomic structures of the subunits was absolutely amazing,” the author writes. “It was like landing on a new continent and encountering new and different terrain.”
Arrival at the Top
AFTER 20-PLUS years of hard work and sacrifice, Dr. Ramakrishnan finally arrived, sharing a Noble Prize in Chemistry with 2 other scientists. But recognition comes with a price. He notes with honesty that the Nobel Prize is not awarded for being a great scientist, but rather for making a groundbreaking discovery. And striving for the Nobel Prize can change scientists’ behavior, leaving them often frustrated and unhappy, when year after year they fail to get one.
“I don’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Rather, some of us are fortunate enough to be the agents of important discoveries that would have been made anyway….”— Venki Ramakrishnan, PhD
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This passage in the epilogue best describes the researchers behind the white lab coat: “I don’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Rather, some of us are fortunate enough to be the agents of important discoveries that would have been made anyway, sometimes not even that much later. But this cold analytical view does not sit well with our emotional selves…. Science becomes a play, with heroes and villains…. When someone like Newton or Einstein sees much further than others, or Watson and Crick synthesize in one stroke the essential features of DNA that might have dribbled out in pieces, we tend to immortalize them.”
Gene Machine is a thought-provoking account of science at its highest level as well as the human and political struggles that underpin the advances that have changed the world for the better. This book is highly recommended for readers of The ASCO Post. ■