Professor Ruth and Yossi Sperling: We definitely live our professions.The walls are covered with paintings, bookshelves line the room, and set gracefully in a niche are two chairs and a small table adorned with a vase of flowers in the home of the professors Sperling.
The couch is wonderfully comfortable, and the tea impeccably served, as these two scientists reveal the secrets of the chemistry of their marriage and of their new insights into how the DNA code is transformed into instructions for the protein construction through RNA “cutting and pasting” that is necessary for cells to survive.
Professor Ruth Sperling of the Genetics Department of the Hebrew University brings plates of cookies, lemon cake and a selection of teas, while Professor Yossi Sperling of the Organic Chemistry Department of the Weizmann Institute begins explaining the background of their study.
“We have solved the mystery of the structure of the machine [or spliceosome] in the cell where cutting and pasting – splicing – of RNA that codes for proteins takes place,” he told ISRAEL21c.
His wife adds: “Since many diseases, including cancer, appear to be connected to mistakes that take place during the splicing process, causing defects in the cells, understanding the workings of the machinery involved may facilitate the correction or prevention of these diseases in the future.”
After about 20 years of research that is by no means complete, the couple and their dedicated and talented graduate students, Maia Azubel of the Hebrew University and Dr. Sharon Wolf of the Chemical Research Support Department at the Weizmann Institute, have created a 3-D image of the spliceosome ‘machine’ where RNA splicing takes place, which is situated in the nucleus of a cell.
“We chose the top down approach,” says Yossi. “We went to the cell and tried to take out the machine or assembly in its natural state.”
“We are researching something that can only be seen with an electron microscope,” adds Ruth.
The scientists used images of split-second freezing of the spliceosome units at very low temperatures. The composite 3-D picture was built from thousands of images, each showing the sliceosome at a slightly different angle, so that now there is a ‘picture’ of the machines that function in the nucleus of a cell.
“And the machine has the length of 50 nanometers,” adds Yossi, noting that there are one billion nanometers in one meter.
After 43 years of marriage, the two professors are still very respectful and considerate of each other, each listening attentively when the other speaks, rounding out a thought or explanation only if necessary. They say that it takes patience and persistence and a never-ending curiosity to persevere in the scientific world, and laugh that the same can be said of their marriage.
They met in high school and Ruth replies with a definitive “no” when asked if Yossi was her first boyfriend, while he says that “officially” Ruth was his first girlfriend.
They both studied chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for their undergraduate degrees and both earned their PhDs at the Weizmann Institute – she, in biophysics; he, in organic chemistry. Both did post-doctoral work at “the Mecca of molecular biology” at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.
“We definitely live our profession,” they agree, smilingly remembering how their two children, Galia and Gil, used to complain when they discussed their experiments at the dinner table, after they had been waiting all day to see their parents and receive some attention from them.
“Galia always loved art and literature,” says Ruth, commenting that almost all the paintings hanging on the walls are the work of her father, the painter Arieh Allvail, who came to Israel from Poland as a ‘chalutz’ (pioneer) and was one of the founders of Bitania Elite, the first Hashomer Hazair kibbutz. The others were painted by Ruth’s mother, Rachel Allvail Bograchov. Galia, who studied English literature at the Hebrew University, is married, has two children,a and is working in marketing communication. Gil, who studied psychology and philosophy, is now studying visual arts in Jerusalem.
A penchant for the arts is also apparent in the Sperling parents. Ruth has studied voice development and now sings in a choir and both she and her husband enjoy theater and classical music. This supremely compatible couple chose the subject matter of their study together as well, as they both found it fascinating and saw the great potential for treatment and prevention of diseases through greater understanding of the workings of the spliceosome.
The Sperlings, who spend about two days a week working in the same place, share an insatiable curiosity about how things work. They agree that there is no competition between them and that they have never argued about their research.
“We both have tremendous patience and staying power and, yes, we love each other,” says Yossi. “It’s everything together.”