This was another Biology-for-Chemistry year for the Nobel Committee. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Cambridge), Thomas Steitz (Yale) and Ada Yonath (Weizmann Inst.) have won for X-ray crystallographic studies of the ribosome.
Ribosomes are indeed significant, to put it lightly. For those outside the field, these are the complex machines that ratchet along a strand of messenger RNA, reading off its three-letter codons, matching these with the appropriate transfer RNA that's bringing in an amino acid, then attaching that amino acid to the growing protein chain that emerges from the other side. This is where the cell biology rubber hits the road, where the process moves from nucleic acids (DNA going to RNA) and into the world of proteins, the fundamental working units of a day-to-day living cell.
The ribosome has a lot of work to do, and it does it spectacularly quickly and well. It's been obvious for decades that there was a lot of finely balanced stuff going on there. Some of the three-letter codons (and some of the tRNAs) look very much like some of the others, so the accuracy of the whole process is very impressive. If more proofs were needed, it turned out that several antibiotics worked by disrupting the process in bacteria, which showed that a relatively small molecule could throw a wrench into this much larger machinery.
Ribosomes are made out of smaller subunits. A huge amount of work in the earlier days of molecular biology showed that the smaller subunit (known as 30S for how it spun down in a centrifuge tube) seemed to be involved in reading the mRNA, and the larger subunit (50S) was where the protein synthesis was taking place. Most of this work was done on bacterial ribosomes, which are relatively easy to get ahold of. They work in the same fashion as those in higher organisms, but have enough key differences to make them of interest by themselves (see below).
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Yonath and her collaborators turned out the first X-ray structures of any of the ribosomal subunits. Fuzzy and primitive by today's standards, those first data sets got better year by year, thanks in part to techniques that her group worked out first. (The use of CCD detectors for X-ray crystallography, a technology that was behind part of Tuesday's Nobel in Physics, was another big help, as was the development of much brighter and more focused X-ray sources). Later in the 1990s, Steitz and Ramakrishnan both led teams that produced much higher-resolution structures of various ribosomal subunits, and solved what's known as the "phase problem" for these. That's a key to really reconstructing the structure of a complex molecule from X-ray data, and it is very much nontrivial as you start heading into territory like this. (If you want more on the phase problem, here's a thorough and comprehensive teaching site on X-ray crystallography from Cambridge itself).
By the early 2000s, all three groups were turning out ever-sharper X-ray structures of different ribosomal subunits from various organisms. The illustration above, courtesy of the Nobel folks, shows the 50S subunit at 9-angstrom (1998), 5-angstrom (1999) and 2.4-angstrom (2000) resolution, and shows you how quickly this field was advancing. Ramakrishnan's group teased out many of the fine details of codon recognition, and showed how some antibiotics known to cause the ribosome to start bungling the process were able to to work. It turned out that the opening and closing behavior of the 30S piece was a key for this whole process, with error-inducing antibiotics causing it to go out of synch. And here's a place where the differences between bacterial ribosomes and eukaryotic ones really show up. The same antibiotics can't quite bind to mammalian ribosomes, fortunately. Having the protein synthesis machinery jerkily crank out garbled products is just what you'd wish for the bacteria that are infecting you, but isn't something that you'd want happening in your own cells.
At the same time, Steitz's group was turning out better and better structures of the 50S subunit, and helping to explain how it worked. One surprise was that there was a highly ordered set of water molecules and hydrogen bonds involved - in fact, protein synthesis seems to be driven (energetically) almost entirely by changes in entropy, rather than enthalpy. Both his group and Ramakrishnan's have been actively turning out structures of the ribosome subunits in complex with various proteins that are known to be key parts of the process, and those mechanisms of action are still being unraveled as we speak.
The Nobel citation makes reference to the implications of all this for drug design. I'm of two minds on that. It's certainly true that many important antibiotics work at the ribosomal level, and understanding how they do that has been a major advance. But we're not quite to the point where we can design new drugs to slide right in there and do what we want. I personally don't think we're really at that stage with most drug targets of any type, and trying to do it against structures with a lot of nucleic acid character is particularly hard. The computational methods for those are at an earlier stage than the ones we have for proteins.
One other note: every time a Nobel is awarded, the thoughts go to the people who worked in the same area, but missed out on the citation. The three-recipients-max stipulation makes this a perpetual problem. This is outside my area of specialization, but if I had to list some people that just missed out here, I'd have to cite Harry Noller of UC-Santa Cruz and Marina Rodnina of Göttingen. Update: add Peter Moore of Yale as well. All of them work in this exact same area, and have made many real contributions to it - and I'm sure that there are others who could go on this list as well.
One last note: five Chemistry awards out of the last seven, by my count, have gone to fundamental discoveries in cell or protein biology. That's probably a reasonable reflection of the real world, but it does rather cut down on the number of chemists who can expect to have their accomplishments recognized. The arguing about this issue is not be expected to cease any time soon.