Ada Lifshitz (later Yonath) was born in the
Geula quarter of
Jerusalem. Her parents, Hillel and Esther Lifshitz, were
ZionistJews who immigrated to the
British Mandate of Palestine (now
Poland in 1933 before the establishment of
Israel. Her father was a
rabbi and came from a rabbinical family. They settled in Jerusalem and ran a grocery, but found it difficult to make ends meet. They lived in cramped quarters with several other families, and Yonath remembers "books" being the only thing she had to keep her occupied. Despite their poverty, her parents sent her to school in the upscale
Beit HaKerem neighborhood to assure her a good education. When her father died at the age of 42, the family moved to
Yonath was accepted to Tichon Hadash high school although her mother could not pay the tuition. She gave math lessons to students in return. As a youngster, she says she was inspired by the Polish and naturalized-French scientist
Marie Curie. However, she stresses that Curie, whom she as a child was fascinated by after reading her biography, was not her "role model". She returned to Jerusalem for college, graduating from the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a bachelor's degree in
chemistry in 1962, and a master's degree in
biochemistry in 1964. In 1968, she obtained her PhD from the
Weizmann Institute of Science for
X-ray crystallographic studies on the structure of
collagen, with Wolfie Traub as her PhD advisor.
She has one daughter, Hagit Yonath, a doctor at Sheba Medical Center, and a granddaughter, Noa. She is the cousin of anti-occupation activist
She has called for the unconditional release of all
Hamas prisoners, saying that "holding Palestinians captive encourages and perpetuates their motivation to harm Israel and its citizens ... once we don't have any prisoners to release they will have no reason to kidnap soldiers".
Yonath focuses on the mechanisms underlying
protein biosynthesis, by ribosomal crystallography, a research line she pioneered over twenty years ago despite considerable skepticism of the international scientific community. Ribosomes translate
RNA into protein and because they have slightly different structures in microbes, when compared to
eukaryotes, such as human cells, they are often a target for antibiotics. In 2000 and 2001, she determined the complete high-resolution structures of both ribosomal subunits and discovered within the otherwise asymmetric ribosome, the universal symmetrical region that provides the framework and navigates the process of polypeptide polymerization. Consequently, she showed that the ribosome is a
ribozyme that places its substrates in
stereochemistry suitable for
peptide bond formation and for substrate-mediated
catalysis. In 1993 she visualized the path taken by the nascent proteins, namely the ribosomal tunnel, and recently revealed the dynamics elements enabling its involvement in elongation arrest, gating, intra-cellular regulation and nascent chain trafficking into their folding space.
Additionally, Yonath elucidated the modes of action of over twenty different
antibiotics targeting the ribosome, illuminated mechanisms of
drug resistance and
synergism, deciphered the structural basis for antibiotic selectivity and showed how it plays a key role in clinical usefulness and therapeutic effectiveness, thus paving the way for structure-based
For enabling ribosomal crystallography Yonath introduced a novel technique,
cryo bio-crystallography, which became routine in structural biology and allowed intricate projects otherwise considered formidable.
At the Weizmann Institute, Yonath is the incumbent of the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professorial Chair.
Awards and recognition
Telephone interview with Ada Yonath during the announcement of the Nobel Prize
In 2015, she was awarded Honorary Doctorates from the De La Salle University, Manila/Philippines; the Joseph Fourier University, Grenoble/France; the
Medical University of Lodz, Lodz/Poland; and the University of Warwick, UK.
^Traub, Wolfie; Yonath, Ada (1966). "Polymers of Tripeptides as Collagen Models .I. X-RAY Studies of Poly (L-PROLYL-GLYCYL-L-PROLINE) and related Polytripeptides". Journal of Molecular Biology. 16 (2): 404–14.
^Yonath, Ada; Traub, Wolfie (1969). "Polymers of Tripeptides as Collagen Models .4. Structure Analysis of Poly (L-PROLYL-GLYCYL-L-PROLINE)". Journal of Molecular Biology. 43 (3): 461–77.