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Nobel prize awarded for chromosome research

12 October 2009

By Nienke Korsten

Appeared in BioNews 529

Three US scientists have won this year's Nobel prize for Medicine or Physiology for their work on how DNA protects itself from degradation, the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute announced on 5 October. Their discoveries 'have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies', the Assembly said.

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, now at the University of California in San Francisco, US, first identified a typical sequence of DNA molecules (CCCCAA) that was repeated at the end caps of chromosomes - called telomeres - in a unicellular organism, in 1980. It later became apparent that variations of this same telomere sequence are present in most plants and animals. Professor Jack Szostak, now at Harvard Medical School and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, attached this sequence to chromosomes that normally deteriorate rapidly in yeast cells, and found that this prevented them from degrading. Professor Carol Greider - then a graduate student supervised by Professor Blackburn, but now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US - subsequently discovered telomerase, an enzyme that extends the telomeres, in 1984.

Every time a cell divides, its telomeres become progressively shorter, because the enzymes that copy the rest of the genetic material cannot copy the very end of the chromosome. This means that most cells can only divide a certain number of times, before the telomeres reach a critically short length that stops further cell divisions. However, in cells where the enzyme telomerase is active - such as stem cells and germ cells - it acts to restore shortened telomeres.

Later research by the Nobel Prize winners shows that cells with damaged telomerase age faster, and aging of human cells is delayed by the presence of telomerase. Sadly, this does not mean that flooding our cells with telomerase is a good way of increasing their life span. Excessive telomerase activity causes other problems; cancer cells have the ability to divide infinitely without reducing their telomeres. As such, research on telomeres has led to the development of new cancer vaccines directed against cells with increased telomerase activity. Some other diseases such as congenital aplastic anemia, a blood disease, have also been linked to damaged telomerase.

Professor Blackburn has also been active in science policy, particularly in the field of human embryonic stem cell research. In 2004, her membership of George W. Bush's President's Council on Bioethics was not renewed, after she had criticised the Council for presenting biased scientific information in its report 'Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry'. President Bush was strongly criticised by many bioethicists, scientists and politicians for this politically motivated 'reshuffle' of the Council.

Scientific Activist | 05 October 2009
NIH News | 06 October 2009
Science Progress | 06 October 2009
BBC News Online | 05 October 2009 | 05 October 2009


08 October 2012 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
Professor Sir John Gurdon of the University of Cambridge has been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on stem cells. He shares the prize for medicine or physiology with Professor Shinya Yamanaka from Japan...
20 June 2011 - by Dr Susan Kelly 
The world of genetically predicted futures has recently been joined by a test for what is advertised as ‘biological age’. The test promises to provide information about the rate at which one is ageing – and knowing when you will die would make planning for the future so much easier!...
15 February 2010 - by Ruth Pidsley 
Scientists have identified a genetic variant that may influence the rate at which a person will age. The finding, published in last week's edition of the journal Nature Genetics, could help identify which individuals are most susceptible to common age-related conditions, such as heart disease and Alzheimer's disease....
22 November 2009 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Scientists have discovered among a group of very elderly Jews that their longevity could be due to a mutant enzyme which stops cells ageing. Researchers at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the USA studied 86 Ashkenazi Jews with an average age of 97, as well as 175 of their children, and 93 'control' patients whose parents had had an average lifespan....
19 October 2009 - by Ben Jones 
The 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to three structural biologists for their work exploring the functioning of ribosomes at the atomic level. The laureates, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A Steitz and Ada E Yonath, have been recognized for the development and application of a novel X-ray technique known as X-ray crystallography in investigating the atomic level functioning of ribosomes....

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