Israeli scientist Ada Yonath, 70, was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for showing how ribosomes function, work that has important implications for antibiotics, the prize committee said on Wednesday.
Yonath shares the prize amounting to 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) with Americans Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz.
"As ribosomes are crucial to life, they are also a major target for new antibiotics," the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.
Yonath told a press conference at the Weizmann Institute of Science on Wednesday afternoon that she had been given the feeling that she had no chance of winning the prestigious prize.
"From the moment I reached the first, initial finding I said this was a project deserving a Nobel, but people told me I wouldn’t get there, that it was impossible. In other words, they gave me the feeling that this really is a cardinal and important problem, but that there is no chance."
Nobel winners Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath (Photo: Reuters)
A renowned scientist, Yonath serves as the director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
She was a co-recipient of the 2006 Wolf Prize in Chemistry, along George Feher, and in 2008, became the first Israeli to win a lifetime's achievement award from L'Oréal and UNESCO for her vital work identifying how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
Now she has become the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize.
Prof. Yonath celebrates with her daughter and granddaughter (Photo: AP)
Yonath said Wednesday she was hardly expecting the great honor. "People who think they made such a huge contribution sit and wait for the award and get angry when they don't get it. I'm not like that."
Referring to her ground-breaking study she said, "The topic was such that if a breakthrough could really be achieved, it would have Nobel-winning potential. It was considered difficult to the point of impossible."
She further added, "People were skeptical and I myself wasn't sure we would make it – but indeed we did."
The professor doesn't intend on slowing down from now on and said there are many more challenges to tackle. "Many points remain unanswered, there are a lot of open questions," she said.
'No one more deserving than Ada'
Following the announcement, President Shimon Peres called Yonath and congratulated her on the win. "We are so proud of you, it's hard to describe just how much. You are extremely deserving of the Nobel and the award is an achievement to the entire country, we are all excited together with you," Peres said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also congratulated the winner and said, "I, as all other Israelis, am extremely proud of you. The Nobel Prize is the true Olympics of mankind."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman congratulated also Yonath for winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry. "Her win helps present Israel's real image as one of the world's leading countries of science and technology. Prof. Yonath joins an honorable list of Israelis who have won the most important international recognition.
"The State of Israel, which is a small country, has a very respectable representation among Nobel Prize recipients, and this aspiration must continue to stand before the eyes of the leadership and citizens as one," Lieberman added.
Opposition Chairwoman Tzipi Livni stressed the feminine side. "I was excited, and I am proud that it's a woman winning the prestigious prize. I know that when women reach achievements, particularly such an achievement, it gives strength to other women to dare and succeed.
"In addition, I view your win as a very important one because it strengthens Israel's image beyond the conflict, Israel as a country which nurtures science and manages to illustrate through women like you its contribution to science and humanity," Livni told Yonath.
Dr. Anat Bashan, Yonath's research partner commented as well and said, "There is no doubt that if anyone deserves a Nobel prize it's Ada – she's an amazing scientist and an incredible human being."
This was the third of this year's Nobel prizes, following awards for medicine or physiology on Monday and for physics on Tuesday.
Prizes for the sciences and for peace were established in the will of 19th century dynamite tycoon Alfred Nobel and have been handed out since 1901. Sweden's central bank began awarding a prize for economics in 1969.
Roni Sofer, Ronen Medzini, Roi Mandel and Reuters contributed to this report