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Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  1,153 ratings  ·  200 reviews
Everyone has heard of DNA. But by itself, DNA is just an inert blueprint for life. It is the ribosome--an enormous molecular machine made up of a million atoms--that makes DNA come to life, turning our genetic code into proteins and therefore into us. Gene Machine is an insider account of the race for the structure of the ribosome, a fundamental discovery that both advance ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published November 6th 2018 by Basic Books
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 ·  1,153 ratings  ·  200 reviews

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Mar 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: white
Reading this quite good book, caused me to realize how much we owe to James Watson, he of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo who became famous by discovering the structure of DNA.

But, not because of that. As Ramakrishnan tells so well in this book, once an idea is discoverable, whether the structure of DNA or electricity or radio or the internal combustion engine or even evolution by natural selection, there will be multiple people who will have the potential to discover it. If Watson and Crick h
Feb 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I remember reading Craig Ventner's book about racing to sequence the human genome. It read like a novel. I couldn't look away as Ventner spilled all the secrets about his personal life as well as all the nasty, behind the scenes antics that arise when scientists compete. I remember thinking he seemed a bit bitter, but I didn't care because I wanted to know everything I could about this usually hidden side of scientific discovery. Ramakrishnan's book is very similar in that it allows the reader t ...more
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
I seldom read biographies or memoirs. By me, the world is best understood by those who are not at the center of the story being told because a solipsism seeps through otherwise.

Within the story is the real nature of how science progresses with its messiness, competition and sometimes luck ('chance favors the prepared mind').

A wonderful quote from Blake 'the fool in his persistent folly becomes wise'. That quote is applicable for all of us who are thrown into this world without certainty and wh
This is 90% boring auto-biography and 10% interesting molecular biology. If nothing else, it's great to hear science straight from the scientist.

And the race to decipher the ribosome is quite interesting. It reminds me of the race to decode the human genome.

I just wish the author had gone into more detail on the whole ribosome. Instead, we get his perspective on the piece he worked on, and even then it's only doled out as relevant to the narrative of competitiveness, which I couldn't care less a
Shabbeer Hassan
Apr 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
An amazing, honest and humbling look into the race to discover the structure of the 30 subunit and 50 subunit structure of the ribosome. Venki's journey from grad school to the foremost of science, his struggles in the cut-throat, competitive world of academia, frustration with troublesome colleagues are presented quite well here. A fast-paced read!

My Rating - 4.5/5
Nov 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A thoroughly sublime read. Dr. Venki's humility and honesty shines through in each chapter. His perseverance in his work despite failure and competition is a true testimony to the nature and spirit of science. Here are some of the quotes I highlighted while reading the book:

"But that wasn’t all. Over the course of a single night, Brian had located one protein after another, until he had located all seven previously known protein structures in the 30S maps. Actually, although he knew where it was
Less of a memoir, more of a textbook.
Sep 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
It was a great challenge to decipher the arrangament of the intricate ribosome molecule, integral to converting DNA into useful proteins in a cell. Here is a 3D map of a cell showing ribosomes as little red dots

Here is a colourful image of a ribosome from the author's website:

Although there is just about that image in black and white on the title page, I missed it. It would have helped if the image on page 184 of 30S
Aug 01, 2021 rated it liked it
Academecians are rockstars in their domain. For the rest of us, they can be as alien as a martian. This book was like watching one of the jawdropping visual effects sequence in a Chinese movie without subtitles.

Venki Ramakrishnan's landmark book on the race to identifiying the Rhibozome structure and understanding the protein creation and activation/deactivation mechanism is a mixed one. The journey could not be explained without understanding the science (physics, chemistry and philosophy!) an
May 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: scyence
Immersive and inspiring. A great read for a graduate student in life sciences and anyone who likes popular science.

It is a captivating story not only of one’s scientific career which included a major change in research fields from physics to biology, but also of an intense scientific race. Reading this as a young scientist helps to realise that scientific problems are rarely solved by a single scientist: it is instead a collaborative effort of the scientific community. One can often find thems
Feb 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
An amazing awe inspiring journey of path-breaking discovery of RNA structure by the author leading RNA biologist. The story cites the persistence and hard-work of many researchers all over the world engaged in the race to uncover the mystery.The account starts with the author taking the life altering decision of taking part in the cut throat competition of finding the structure of gene machine.With progress in time, he acquired the requisite skill and gathered a group of ambitious researchers wh ...more
The  Conch
Jun 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
The author, Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan is a Nobel Prize-winning biologist whose many scientific contributions include his work on the atomic structure of the ribosome. He was born in Chidambaram in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu.

The book is all about advance study of function of Ribosome and its Ribo Nucleic Acid (RNA). RNA holds the mystery of origination of life in the Earth. The author describes his journey from India to ultimately obtaining Nobel prize. The path was not easy. There
Jennifer Glass
Dec 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best-non-fiction
An inside look at how an outsider rose to the “pinnacle” of science: winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, along win Ada Yonath and Tom Steitz, for contributions to understanding the structure and function of the ribosome. Venkatraman (“Venki”) Ramakrishnan was trained as a physicist but fell in love with biology as a PhD student. This book reads as Venki’s memoir. The book contains approachable descriptions of myriad scientific techniques, primarily in X-ray crystallography, that eventually enabled ...more
Pinaki Swain
Nov 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It is beautifully written and reads like a detective novel. Not only Prof. Ramakrishnan introduces scientific terms, questions, and methods of solution in accessible language, he tries to portray the personalities involved in the research. While introducing a new character in the story, be it a new graduate student in his lab or a well-respected researcher in the field, he tries to say something about their personalities and interests outside the lab. While introducing a new post-doc, he uses so ...more
Oct 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed
Excellent memoir/history of science but technical in parts

I loved this book. Author Venki Ramakrishnan tells a great story about his work on the ribosome, the part of the cell that reads the genetic code and translates it into proteins. He describes in detail the techniques used and the results. This is perhaps one weakness of the book, as Ramakrishnan used the very complex technique x-ray crystallography. I didn’t understand much of the finer details but I did understand enough to get the broa
An interesting account of a life in science. I can’t say that I know a whole lot more about ribosomes, but something must’ve sunk in somewhere.

There was sure lots of information about ribosomes and RNA and DNA and how to crystallize them using the fascinating discipline of crystallography in order to gradually learn their structures at the atomic level. It seemed to me that he spent years working on this only to find new technology coming along that would’ve cut it down to a few hours. Well, at
Ardon Pillay
Jul 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: popular-science
Scientists are naturally averse to being too cavalier with their opinions - but Ramakrishnan is much like James Watson, he is an exception to the rule.

He’s very candid about what he sees as the key steps taken to determine the overall structure of the ribosome, the four stroke piston engine of life.

It was a very enjoyable read, but I found myself having to stop and take a lot more time to allow the physics of X-Ray Crystallography to sink in (but this may be down to my lack of a physics backgr
Kunal Sen
Aug 01, 2020 rated it really liked it

It is probably not the best scientist memoir I have read in terms of literary quality or philosophical depth, but it is one of the most honest description of a scientist’s life. It is this honesty that makes this a remarkable read, and the memory of it will stay with me for a very long time. Modern day science can be ruthlessly competitive, especially in the experimental domain. Venki Ramakrishnan describes his race to discover the structure and functionality of one of the most surprising molecu
Jan 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book is more important for what it stands for in addition to the scientific content. It's not just another nonfiction, but packs knowledge with the author's wisdom that he has gathered throughout his unconventional career... He describes challenges and difficulties that scientists face in this era.
I'd recommend this more for motivation and inspiration although the author gives a very detailed insight into Ribosomes.
For a more detailed scientific book, also written in a very nice prose, woul
Anoop Bhat
Feb 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is a Nobel Laureate’s equivalent of Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint. It has similar dopamine kick, but sustained for decades.

Usually, building prequel to such science stories is very challenging. Venki manages it brilliantly- he both tells his personal experience around the story and describes in layman’s-term the concrete science behind. One good thing about such story telling is, the reader can nail the story to a parallel experience from his/her life in general.

Once Venki begins explaining
Siddharth Tripathi
Apr 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
You need to hang on to it in the beginning, when it starts to get boring with a lot of names and (for me) uninteresting stuff that seems to go nowhere.

But then you kind of connect to the issues the author has. As a science student, I for one, never really figured out which field of chemistry to indulge myself into going back and forth on quantum and organic.

The author inspires by writing the account of not falling into “oscar” traps of the science world and taking risks, experimenting with the
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Gene Machine is a memoir by Venki Ramakrishnan, the shared winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in solving the structure of the ribosome. In this book, he candidly and honestly shares this journey of discovery from a physics student to a Nobel Prize winner, detailing the long and arduous process of scientific research, and the intense competitiveness of the field that actually depends a lot on ‘luck’.

As a science student, I studied ribosomes in Biology before but I never real
Youssef Mansour
Feb 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
A beautifully written, well-rounded memoir of the race to discover the atomic structure of the ribosome. Venki Ramakrishnan describes his life and career as a scientist from the time he moved from India to the United States for a PhD in physics.Then, his relatively late transition to biology, all the way to his Nobel prize in Chemistry in 2009. He recounts early crystallization efforts by Ada Yonath, the crystallization of individual ribosome components and the race to get the atomic structure o ...more
Bimal Patel
Aug 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
First of all, thank you Perseus Books for giving me this opportunity to review this book before it's publication.

Almost everyone with some formal education behind them knows or have at least heard about DNA, the genetic library of our cell but how about Ribosomes? The very machinery that translates the genetic material to protein, not as glamorous as DNA right? In Gene Machine by Dr. Venki Ramakrishnan takes us on a journey that ended with discovery of structure of the ribosome to be precise it'
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A very honest account of the race for scientific discovery. I remember venerating scientists when I was younger (in a different way then I venerate them now), and thought of them as superhuman, infallible gods. But if anything, this book shows that deep down inside, we are all emotional beings and our own self interest is often the key to propelling us to glory. As scientists work on important discoveries, many of them will selfishly hold on to facts and knowledge in an attempt to beat one anoth ...more
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
2.5 stars. I really wanted to like this book. Don't get me wrong. The science is wonderful and the story of how they got to deciphering the structure is fascinating. I just wish he had done a better job in actually telling the story. There are parts where he gets personal and the very next sentence is extremely technical. It was almost like he was giving me different pieces of a puzzle, but just when the picture would start to come together, he'd move on to the next puzzle. As a student of scien ...more
Man, I feel like I'm rating everything 2 stars lately, but everything I've been reading has just been okay!

In the case of this book, I normally really enjoy autobiographies and books about science, and this is both, but...I dunno, guys, it was not terribly interesting, and I feel like more time is spent here complaining about things like the Nobel Prize than I generally prefer. I mean, I get what he's saying, kind of comes across funny here is all.

I might have had an easier time o
If this isn't longlisted for the Wellcome Prize this year then I'll eat my bobble hat. ...more
Sajith Kumar
Sometimes, the simplest questions are the most difficult to answer. One such is that of how many Indians have won the Nobel Prize so far. The figure can be as high as twelve, if you count Ronald Ross, Rudyard Kipling, Dalai Lama, V S Naipaul and Mother Teresa. Some or of Indian origin, or been born in India or left India too early in their career. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was a graduate of Physics from Baroda but immediately migrated to the US for further studies. He won the Nobel in Chemistry i ...more
Jan 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Gene machine is both a memoir reminiscent of "The Double Helix" as well as a well-written review of the journey to resolve the structure of the ribosome. I learned new details about the ribosome including the fact that the ribosome is really a ribozyme with many RNAs participating in the catalyzing reactions of translation. Dr. Ramakrishnan gave a nice summary of the history of X-ray crystallography, as well as the best explanation I've seen on forming a crystal and what the different structural ...more
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