Venki Ramakrishnan: the Cadillac of ribosome structure investigators
Give this man a Nobel Prize. Give it to him.
I know before I’ve made clear my affection for Harry Noller, and that affection still remains strong like a peptide bond, but lately I’m head over heels (head over sneakers) for Venki Ramakrishnan. Last week in his lecture for the MIT Biology Colloquium, Venki Ramakrishnan charmed me and several hundred other people with his humor, smarts, and beautiful structural work.
The scene of Venki’s lecture, titled “How the ribosome facilitates selection of the right tRNA during decoding of the message,” was quite a spectacle. There was an electricity in the air. Never had I seen room 32-123 so packed. Every seat was taken, of course, and there were at least one-hundred other people huddled in the back of the lecture hall, down the stair aisles, in front, everywhere. Some professors were seated on the concrete floor.
Venki’s faculty host had warned the audience before the lecture began that the aisles had to be clear (for fire safety reasons), and so they were cleared. But sure enough, ~10 minutes into Venki’s lecture, the honorable MIT campus police unkindly entered the room and, temporarily, ruined some beautiful science.
It was quite funny: Venki was captivating us from the lectern, as he faced a projection screen to his left. To his right, a plump MIT police officer sauntered in, unbeknownest to Venki, but knownest to everyone else in the room. The copper reached his arm out to the lectern to capture Venki’s attention, Venki stopped talking, and the officer motioned to follow him outside the lecture hall. Totally perplexed, Venki obliged and left the room, to a chorus of boo’s directed at the police. Moments later, Venki emerged calm as a clam, and succinctly directed movement of his audience into a fire-escape safe arrangement so that his lecture could continue.
Imagine what Venki’s story could sound like: “I won the Nobel Prize, went to MIT, and was accosted by the campus police at my own lecture!”
Venki gave a beautiful introduction, even making a jab at Jim Watson (Watson the man, not Watson the scientist). (He also later hilariously and appropriately mocked Tom Steitz.) He then proceeded to give the best structural biology talk I have ever seen.
He described how proper base pairing between the tRNA anticodon to the mRNA codon induces subtle structural movements between that end of the tRNA and small subunit RNA that are transmitted up through the tRNA toward its aminoacyl end, inducing residue movement in EF-Tu leading to GTP hydrolysis–a cascade of events leading to EF-Tu release and aa-tRNA incorporation. (For more, see Venki’s recent review.)
He ended by narrating an incredibly cool animated movie of all the ribosome structural movements he had just described in detail, and then reprised the movie with a version set to a soundtrack of snippets of classic pop tunes (e.g. by The Clash, David Bowie, etc.), arranged by his lab. The lyrics spoke to the molecular movements spotlighted in the movie. It was very entertaining.
I realize I could have proclaimed Venki the “Rolls-Royce” of ribosome investigators, since he’s at the MRC. But no. He’s American; he’s a Caddy.