By ribosome rewarded

Harry Noller, the Sinsheimer Professor of Molecular Biology at UC Santa Cruz, won the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for his decades of discoveries that revealed how RNA played a central role in ribosome function and, in turn, all of the building blocks of life.

For revealing the central role of ribosomes in creating life through RNA and proteins, Harry Noller, Sinsheimer Professor of Molecular Biology, won the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. The $3 million award is funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to support the sciences.

“I can’t think of a more meaningful way to spend one’s career than working on the ribosome, one of the most amazing objects in all of the universe,” said Noller.

Since 1972, when Noller first showed that RNA was essential for ribosomes to produce proteins, his studies have spotlighted the role of RNA—not DNA—in the origin of life. In 1999, his lab produced the first high-resolution image of the molecular structure of a complete ribosome, a feat upon which they later improved.

“Our long-term goal is to create a three-dimensional movie of the ribosome carrying out protein synthesis at the atomic level,” said Noller, who plans to continue at the lab despite his emeritus status. Pinpointing structural changes during protein production could provide clues to how complex life arose from simple combinations of atoms, heat, and water. “It’s a tall order,” said Noller, “but it’s not crazy.”