2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Posted on October 5, 2009 Comments (2)
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to three scientists who have solved a major problem in biology: how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. The Nobel Laureates have shown that the solution is to be found in the ends of the chromosomes – the telomeres – and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase.
The long, thread-like DNA molecules that carry our genes are packed into chromosomes, the telomeres being the caps on their ends. Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak discovered that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation. Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn identified telomerase, the enzyme that makes telomere DNA. These discoveries explained how the ends of the chromosomes are protected by the telomeres and that they are built by telomerase.
If the telomeres are shortened, cells age. Conversely, if telomerase activity is high, telomere length is maintained, and cellular senescence is delayed. This is the case in cancer cells, which can be considered to have eternal life. Certain inherited diseases, in contrast, are characterized by a defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells. The award of the Nobel Prize recognizes the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies.
Scientists began to investigate what roles the telomere might play in the cell. Szostak’s group identified yeast cells with mutations that led to a gradual shortening of the telomeres. Such cells grew poorly and eventually stopped dividing. Blackburn and her co-workers made mutations in the RNA of the telomerase and observed similar effects in Tetrahymena. In both cases, this led to premature cellular ageing – senescence. In contrast, functional telomeres instead prevent chromosomal damage and delay cellular senescence. Later on, Greider’s group showed that the senescence of human cells is also delayed by telomerase. Research in this area has been intense and it is now known that the DNA sequence in the telomere attracts proteins that form a protective cap around the fragile ends of the DNA strands.
Many scientists speculated that telomere shortening could be the reason for ageing, not only in the individual cells but also in the organism as a whole. But the ageing process has turned out to be complex and it is now thought to depend on several different factors, the telomere being one of them. Research in this area remains intense.
The 3 awardees are citizens of the USA; two were born elsewhere.
Read more about their research at the Nobel Prize web site.
Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn–one of Time magazine’s 100 “Most Influential People in the World” in 2007–made headlines in 2004 when she was dismissed from the President’s Council on Bioethics after objecting to the council’s call for a moratorium on stem cell research and protesting the suppression of relevant scientific evidence in its final report.
Webcast of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn speaking at Google: