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December 1, 2010

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Elusive Protein Factory Mapped at Last

By Daniel Cressey

It has long been the pot of protein gold at the end of the X-ray rainbow for researchers mapping the workings of life at the most basic level. Now, after years of work and amid fierce competition from rival teams, a structure for the eukaryotic ribosome has been unveiled.

Ribosomes — large complexes of protein and RNA — are used by every animal to turn genetic information into proteins, a process known as translation. They are of fundamental importance for the survival of a cell, and their structure is strongly conserved throughout evolution.

About a decade ago, atomic-resolution maps of ribosomes from bacteria and archaea were created by firing X-rays at ribosome crystals and analysing the resulting diffraction patterns. This work later won the biological cartographers responsible a Nobel prize. But the structure has proved harder to pin down in eukaryotes — including animals and plants — which have relatively complex cells with nuclei.

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