We were delighted to learn this morning that long-time NIGMS grantees Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak will share the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their “discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”
I remember very well the presentation by then-graduate student Carol Greider at the 1987 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology about her purification and initial characterization of telomerase and component RNA. Her passion and enthusiasm for science stood out, even in that high-powered crowd. I also enjoyed working with her when we were colleagues at Johns Hopkins before I came to NIGMS.
The work of Blackburn, Greider and Szostak represents an archetype of curiosity-driven basic research. The fact that DNA synthesis requires a template creates a clear challenge to copying the ends of DNA. The reality of this challenge was clear from Szostak’s studies with linear DNA molecules in yeast. Using a model organism (Tetrahymena) selected for its unusually high abundance of DNA ends, Blackburn’s lab identified telomere sequences and showed, with Szostak, that these sequences did, in fact, stabilize linear DNA molecules in yeast. Blackburn and Greider then set out to detect and purify the enzyme that adds telomeres to DNA.
After their success, they and many other researchers have explored the implications of these observations as they relate to cancer, cellular aging and stem cells. In the years to come, we can expect to see additional implications and broad exploitation of these observations.