DNA is what makes you – you. It contains the genetic code for all the cells in your body that are used to make your entire system. In cell division it is vital that the chromosomes are copied in full without damage and one of the ways the DNA strand is protected is by telomeres. At each end of a chromosome is a cap or telomere that protects the strand from unraveling and keeps our cells from falling apart.
In 1980, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn published her first findings about the molecular nature of telomeres showing that they actually contain a particular DNA. Two years later working with a colleague she was able to further show that this DNA prevents chromosomes from being broken down. The mystery of how telomeres were produced was solved in 1984 by Dr. Carol Greider and Dr. Blackburn when they discovered the ribonucleoprotein enzyme telomerase that produces the telomeres.
Blackburn has worked within the University of California System since her days as a postdoctoral researcher and served as the principal investigator at the Blackburn Lab, part of the University of California San Francisco. At this lab the researchers have been taking Blackburn’s work to the next level looking for the mechanism of telomerase action and its roles in cells in order to be able to build a more comprehensive understanding of the functions of telomerase.
It is thought that insufficient telomere maintenance may limit the extent of a healthy life and increase the risks of common chronic diseases that become prevalent as humans age. By combining collaborative clinical studies with cell and molecular studies in the lab they aim to understand the impact of limited telomere maintenance on human organismic processes.
Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for discovering the molecular nature of telomeres and for co-discovering telomerase wasn’t Blackburn’s only prestigious award which also includes the Lasker, Gruber, and Gairdner prizes.
January 1st, 2016 marked the first day of Dr. Blackburn’s tenure as President of the Salk Institute where she had been a non-resident fellow since 2001.
Written by Angela Goad