Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome
For most people, obtaining a Ph.D in a scientific discipline is a challenging enough task. It involves immersion in the knowledge pool of the discipline, years of work in a laboratory, and the production of an original piece of scientific research. To do all this, and then identify a strong interest in very different scientific pursuit can be a daunting task. But that is the road taken by Venki Ramakrishnan. He culminates this rigorous journey by winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Ada Yonath and Thomas Steitz.
Born in India, Ramakrishnan obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics at age 19, followed by a physics Ph.D at age 24. Although trained in theoretical physics, he found that field not to his liking and began exploring molecular biology, using tools such as neutron scattering and X-ray crystallography to explore the structure of biomolecules. The success of his research came in part because of the tools he used so well, as well as interactions with Steitz (a biophysicist and biochemist) and Yonath (a protein crystallographer).
The journey which led to the elucidation of ribosome structure is told primarily in a narrative fashion. There are a few sections of the book where the technical details dominate the story, but most of the tale is told through interactions with other scientists. Throughout the book, a clear picture emerges of the human side of science. There are rivalries (some friendly, some not so), there are close working relationships, there is competition, and there is cooperation. The hopes and concerns of those engaged in this challenging and frustrating task are told with honesty and sensitivity.
The story is not without its lighter and more human moments. Interspersed in the tale of elucidating the structure of complex biomolecules are tales of career decisions made, at least in part, based on preferences for where a person and their significant other wish to live. Other comments deal with the availability (or lack thereof) of female companionship at the research laboratory. In spite of an apparent scarcity of dating companions, one scientist mentioned was able to have several relationships while he was at one national facility. Of course, today this could be considered as sexual harassment.
There are some disappointing aspects to the book. Even though there are numerous references to a wide range of scientists, there is no index to allow the reader to locate information about any of them. The notes at the end of the book do provide a few key references for further reading, mainly covering articles dealing with the development of different techniques and approaches described in the book. There are a few websites that give some background on some of the key players in the search, but no extended bibliography. It would also have been helpful to provide a summary of information to give a clearer picture of the ribosome and its components, at least as far as we understand them today.
Ramakrishnan certainly does not represent the only crossover scientist who becomes involved in a completely different discipline. His book describes a number of researchers who blended imaging techniques for physics with computer processing of the data to explore the intricate structures of molecules and living systems. An October 29, 2018 article in Scientific American describes recent developments in what is referred to as “quantum biology.” Photons were shown to interact with bacteria in such a way as to exhibit quantum entanglement. The interpretation is controversial, but the complex interplay of physics and biology is again demonstrated.
Gene Machine gives an enlightening and enjoyable picture of the human side of scientific research and stresses the importance of interdisciplinary efforts to deal with the “big picture” issues in modern science.