Venki Ramakrishnan

Venki Ramakrishnan
Ramakrishnan in 2015
62nd President of the Royal Society
In office
1 December 2015 – 30 November 2020
Preceded byPaul Nurse
Succeeded byAdrian Smith
Personal details
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

1952 (age 70–71)
Chidambaram, Madras State (now Tamil Nadu), India
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
Vera Rosenberry
(m. 1975)
RelativesLalita Ramakrishnan (sister)
ResidenceUnited Kingdom
EducationConvent of Jesus and Mary Baroda
Alma mater
Known for
Scientific career
ThesisThe Green Function Theory of the Ferroelectric Phase Transition in Potassium Dihydrogen-Phosphate (1976)
Doctoral advisorTomoyasu Tanaka

Venkatraman "Venki" Ramakrishnan (born 1952) is a British-American structural biologist. He shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath for research on the structure and function of ribosomes.

Since 1999, he has worked as a group leader at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, UK and is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He served as President of the Royal Society from 2015 to 2020.

Education and early life

Ramakrishnan was born in 1952 in Chidambaram in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, India.

His parents, Prof. C. V. Ramakrishnan and Prof. Rajalakshmi Ramakrishnan were both scientists, and his father was head of the department of biochemistry at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. At the time of his birth, Ramakrishnan's father was away from India doing postdoctoral research with David E. Green at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the US. Venki's mother obtained a PhD in psychology from McGill University in 1959. completing it in only 18 months, and was mentored, among others, by Donald O. Hebb.

Venki has one sibling, his younger sister Lalita Ramakrishnan, who is professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the department of medicine, University of Cambridge, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ramakrishnan moved to Vadodara (previously also known as Baroda) in Gujarat at the age of three, where he had his entire schooling at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, except for the one year (1960–61) which he and his family spent in Adelaide, Australia. Following his pre-science at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, he did his undergraduate studies in the same university on a National Science Talent Scholarship, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1971. At the time, the physics course at Baroda was new, and based in part on the Berkeley Physics Course and The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

Immediately after graduation he moved to the US, where he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree in physics from Ohio University in 1976 for research into the ferroelectric phase transition of potassium dihydrogen phosphate (KDP) supervised by Tomoyasu Tanaka. Then he spent two years studying biology as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego while making a transition from theoretical physics to biology.

Career and research

Ramakrishnan began work on ribosomes as a postdoctoral fellow with Peter Moore at Yale University. After his post-doctoral fellowship, he initially could not find a faculty position even though he had applied to about 50 universities in the United States.

He continued to work on ribosomes from 1983 to 1995 as a staff scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

In 1995, he moved to the University of Utah as a professor of biochemistry, and in 1999, he moved to his current position at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where he had also been a sabbatical visitor during 1991–92 on a Guggenheim Fellowship.[citation needed]

In 1999, Ramakrishnan's laboratory published a 5.5 angstrom resolution structure of the 30S subunit. The following year, his laboratory determined the complete molecular structure of the 30S subunit of the ribosome and its complexes with several antibiotics. This was followed by studies that provided structural insights into the mechanism that ensures the fidelity of protein biosynthesis. In 2007, his laboratory determined the atomic structure of the whole ribosome in complex with its tRNA and mRNA ligands. Since 2013, he has used Cryogenic electron microscopy to work primarily on eukaryotic and mitochondrial translation. Ramakrishnan is also known for his past work on histone and chromatin structure.

As of 2019 his most cited papers (according to Google Scholar) have been published in Nature, Science, and Cell.

Ramakrishnan's term as president of the Royal Society was dominated by Brexit and, in his final year, the COVID-19 pandemic and its response. In an interview in July 2018, he said that Britain's decision to leave the European Union was hurting Britain's reputation as a good place to work in science, commenting "It's very hard for the science community to see any advantages in Brexit. They are pretty blunt about that." He saw advantages to both the UK and the EU for Britain to continue to be engaged in Galileo and Euratom, which, unlike the European Medicines Agency, are not EU agencies.

Ramakrishnan argued that a no-deal Brexit would harm science. Ramakrishnan wrote, "A deal on science is in the best interests of Europe as a whole and should not be sacrificed as collateral damage over disagreements on other issues. If we are going to successfully tackle global problems like climate change, human disease and food security, we can't do so in isolation. There is no scenario where trashing our relationships with our closest scientific collaborators in the EU gets us closer to these goals."

Awards and honours

Ramakrishnan at the Nobel Prize Press conference in 2009.

Ramakrishnan was elected a Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in 2002, a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2003, and a Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

In 2007, Ramakrishnan was awarded the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine and the Datta Lectureship and Medal of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS).

Ramakrishnan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, along with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath. He received India's second highest civilian honor, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2010.

In 2008, Ramakrishnan won the Heatley Medal of the British Biochemical Society, and became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and a foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy. He has been a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences since 2010.

He has received honorary degrees from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, University of Utah and University of Cambridge. He is also an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford. and The Queen's College, Oxford.

Ramakrishnan was knighted in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to molecular biology, but does not generally use the title "Sir".[citation needed] That same year, he was awarded the Sir Hans Krebs Medal by the FEBS. In 2014, he was awarded the XLVI Jiménez-Díaz Prize by the Fundación Conchita Rábago (Spain).

In 2017, Ramakrishnan received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.

Ramakrishnan was included as one of 25 Greatest Global Living Indians by NDTV Channel, India on 14 December 2013.

His certificate of election to the Royal Society reads:

Ramakrishnan is internationally recognised for determination of the atomic structure of the 30S ribosomal subunit. Earlier he mapped the arrangement of proteins in the 30S subunit by neutron diffraction and solved X-ray structures of individual components and their RNA complexes. Fundamental insights came from his crystallographic studies of the complete 30S subunit. The atomic model included over 1500 bases of RNA and 20 associated proteins. The RNA interactions representing the P-site tRNA and the mRNA binding site were identified and the likely modes of action of many clinically important antibiotics determined. His most recent work goes to the heart of the decoding mechanism showing the 30S subunit complexed with poly-U mRNA and the stem-loop of the cognate phenylalanine tRNA. Anti-codon recognition leaves the "wobble" base free to accommodate certain non-Watson/Crick basepairs, thus providing an atomic description of both codon:anti-codon recognition and "wobble". He has also made substantial contributions to understanding how chromatin is organised, particularly the structure of linker histones and their role in higher order folding.

In 2020, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society and became a board member of The British Library.

Ramakrishnan was made a member of the Order of Merit in 2022.

Personal life

In 1975, Ramakrishnan married Vera Rosenberry, an author and illustrator of children's books. Rosenberry was already the mother of a daughter, Tanya Kapka (now an Oregon-based doctor), by a previous relationship. The couple remain married and are the parents of a son, Raman Ramakrishnan, who is a cellist based in New York.

Ramakrishnan is a lifelong vegetarian.

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