By Josh Nicholson

UC Santa Cruz, home of the only RNA center within the University of California system, has enabled its faculty to do groundbreaking work in molecular biology.

Within the past two months, Professor Harry Noller has won both the Paul Ehrlich & Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize and the Gairdner Award for his work on the elucidation of the ribosome structure, the protein synthesizing apparatus of the cell.

Before Noller’s and others’ discovery, the long-standing evolutionary question of what came first, protein or RNA (ribonucleic acid), remained unanswered. Noller and other scientists found that RNA, in fact, was responsible for the ribosome’s functionality.

Last month, Noller was presented with the Gairdner Award, a prestigious Canadian biomedical award. He and Professor Thomas Steitz of Yale were selected and will receive this honor on Oct. 25 in Toronto.

In an e-mail to City on a Hill Press, Steitz wrote, “Our major discovery from the large ribosomal subunit structure was that the site of peptide bond formation is surrounded entirely by RNA, thereby proving a long-held hypothesis of others, including Harry, that the ribosome is a ribozyme.”

Over the years, Noller has received numerous awards and acclaim for such work. Through crystallization of the ribosome, he and others determined its structure at an atomic level.

In March, Noller received the Paul Ehrlich & Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, along with Dr. Ada Yonath of Israel, for contributions to the three-dimensional molecular structure of the ribosome.

Dr. Clint Spiegel, a lab member in the Noller lab, commented on Noller as a researcher.

“What’s amazing about Dr. Noller is that he has worked on the structure and function of the ribosome since the ’70s,” Spiegel said. “He has remained focused and driven throughout his career.”

Noller has not yet decided what to do with the money from either of these prizes.

Steitz, however, jokingly said, “many of my friends and acquaintances congratulate me on getting the ‘Gardener Award.’ As I am, indeed, a very avid gardener, I may choose to invest it in further improvements of my garden.”

Noller, one of the more-recognized biology professors in terms of awards on campus, currently heads the RNA center at UCSC, where he is constantly working to better understand the ribosome.

Noller said, “We are continuing to work on the structure of the ribosome, focusing next on the different structural states that it takes on during the synthesis of proteins.”