Ada Yonath Is Born

June 22, 1939

Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Ada Yonath was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem, then under the British Mandate.  Yonath’s family was poor and lived in a four-room apartment that they shared with two other families.  Although her parents were religious Jews, they sent Ada to a secular school in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. Following her father’s death when she was eleven, the family moved to Tel-Aviv.

Drawn to science, Ada served in the Medical Forces of the IDF following her high school graduation.  Upon completing her military service, she enrolled at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem where she studied chemistry, biochemistry and physics.  There, Ada received her Masters of Science.  She went on to earn a Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.  For her postdoctoral studies, she attended MIT before returning to Israel to join the Chemistry Department at the Weizmann Institute in 1970.  There she created Israel’s first protein-crystallography laboratory.

Yonath has devoted most of her career to uncovering the structures of the ribosomes, especially as they are active in the process of protein biosynthesis.  According to Yonath,

I was a young researcher at the Weizmann Institute with an ambitious plan to shed light on one of the major outstanding questions concerning living cells: the process of protein biosynthesis. For this aim, I wanted to determine the three-dimensional structure of the ribosome – the cells’ factory for translating the instructions written in the genetic code into proteins – and thus reveal the mechanics guiding the process. This was the beginning of a long quest that took over two decades, in which I was met with reactions of disbelief and even ridicule in the international scientific community. (

In 2000, she was successfully able to determine the structure of two ribosomal subunits.  Her achievement was hailed by Science Magazine as the one of the most important scientific discoveries of the year.  In 2009, she received the Nobel Prize in chemistry together with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz for studies on the structure and function of the ribosome.

The photo shows Ada Yonath (left) receiving her Nobel Prize on December 10, 2009.  The photo is from The Nobel Foundation, and was taken by Frida Westholm.