UCI News

Probing the mysteries of living cells

Renowned molecular biologist Masayasu Nomura has devoted his life to probing the mysteries of ribosomes and cell growth.

April 9, 2009
Probing the mysteries of living cells
Renowned molecular biologist Masayasu Nomura has been widely recognized for bridging the worlds of chemistry and biology. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

When he was in his 50s, renowned molecular biologist Masayasu Nomura wrote a poem for a friend’s 65th birthday. “To the Wise Scientist” reads:

“Someday I too hope to attain the age of sixty-five. / Then I wish to live as you live: / Giving sympathy and help to young people, / Receiving friendship and respect in return. / No more worries, no more self-doubts, / Coming to terms with one’s own life. / In other words, being a wise scientist …”

Nomura, the Grace Bell Professor of Biological Chemistry, turned 81 in spring 2008. He could retire, secure in the knowledge that he has made important contributions to science, but he’s still pursuing his life’s work: probing the mysteries of ribosomes and cell growth.

Ribosomes, tiny round structures present in all living cells, are the “machinery that makes protein,” says Nomura, who came to UC Irvine from the University of Wisconsin in 1984. When he started studying ribosomes in the 1950s, they were newly discovered and a mystery, their structure and components unknown. Because of Nomura’s painstaking research, scientists now know how these cell workhorses transfer information from DNA to protein. Researchers have used his findings to study cell growth of all kinds, from cancer to stem cells.

Like a kid playing with Legos, Nomura was the first to separate the ribosomes into components, then reassemble them to understand how they fit together to form specific structures capable of synthesizing protein. His work opened the way for the study of the molecular components of ribosomes.

In the ’60s and ’70s, using ribosomes from bacterial cells, he showed how complex ribosome structures are formed and how they function to allow the growth of cells, from the simplest single-cell organism to multicellular organisms like humans.

After Nomura joined UCI, the “stimulating change of place” inspired him to change the focus of his research.

“I decided to work on organisms with cellular structures and functions similar to those of humans,” he says. Nomura wanted his research to be more relevant to medicine, to help understand and possibly cure human diseases.

Working with yeast, which has cells that divide and grow much like human cells, he figured out how cells synthesize ribosomes and adjust growth depending on external and internal cellular conditions – findings that may shed light on how abnormal cell growth occurs in cancer and other diseases.

Nomura has been widely recognized for bridging the worlds of chemistry and biology. Among his many honors, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, which also awarded him a special molecular biology medal for his studies.

Working quietly in his office in UCI’s Plumwood House, Nomura continues to study yeast cells in the hope that they’ll yield more information on cell growth, leading to a greater understanding of cancer.

A thoughtful man who strolls the campus grounds during his lunch break, he is still giving sympathy and help to young people – by serving as a mentor to the research assistants and postdoctoral fellows who work in his lab as well as the younger faculty colleagues in his department. And he’s receiving friendship and respect in return.

For his 80th birthday, colleagues and former protégés wrote letters recounting Nomura’s generosity and creativity, producing a collection of testimonials the size of a textbook.

Today, if he has any worries or self-doubts, as cited in his poem, the wise scientist says he knows they’re simply part of coming to terms with life.