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Elizabeth Blackburn
Elizabeth Blackburn
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Elizabeth Blackburn Biography

Nobel Prize in Medicine

Elizabeth Blackburn Date of birth: November 26, 1948

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  Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, the island that forms the southernmost state in Australia. One of seven children, both of her parents were physicians, and her interest in the science of living things was encouraged from an early age.

When she was in her teens, her family moved to Melbourne and Blackburn attended Melbourne's University High School, where a sympathetic teacher further encouraged her interest in science. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and on the advice of her professors, traveled to England to study at Cambridge, where she completed her Ph.D. in 1975. She pursued post-doctoral studies in molecular and cellular biology at Yale University, in the laboratory of Dr. Joseph Gall.

Elizabeth Blackburn Biography Photo
Working with the single-celled organism, Tetrahymena, one of a class of simple organisms sometimes derisively referred to as "pond scum," Blackburn uncovered the molecular structure of the telomere, the region at the end of the chromosome that prevents it from disintegrating as the cell reproduces. Telomeres, she found, were repetitive chains of six-nucleotide sequences. Blackburn and her mentor, Joseph Gall, shared these findings in a landmark paper published in 1978.

The same year, Dr. Blackburn joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, where she continued her work on telomeres. Her research suggested the existence of a unique enzyme that regulates the replication of the telomere, continuously rebuilding the ends of chromosomes to protect them in the cells of young organisms, and allowing them to decay in older ones. The identity of this hypothetical enzyme remained elusive. If its existence could be proved, and its mechanism understood, it would be the first step toward a new understanding of the aging process, of degenerative diseases in which healthy young cells suddenly die, and of cancer, where they multiply uncontrollably.

Since this enzyme could not identified, its action could not be observed, and many experts doubted its existence, proposing alternative explanations for the mysterious life cycle of the telomere. A few years after arriving at Berkeley, Blackburn encountered a recent biology graduate named Carol Greider. Their collaboration would unlock the mystery of the telomere's regulating enzyme.

Elizabeth Blackburn Biography Photo
Carol Greider was born in San Diego, California on April 15, 1961. Both of her parents were scientists: her father a physicist, her mother a biologist. Her mother suffered from depression and committed suicide when Carol was six. She grew up in Davis, California, with her father and an older brother. Although dyslexia made school difficult for her at first, she developed a capacity for memorization that served her well in chemistry and biology classes. By junior high she was showing a distinct aptitude for science.

In her senior year of high school, Greider visited the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she was profoundly impressed by a meeting with a biology professor, Dr. Beatrice Sweeney. The following year, she entered UCSB as a biology major. With Dr. Sweeney's guidance, she soon gravitated toward molecular biology in particular. On graduating in 1983, she considered a number of options for graduate school, but an interview with Elizabeth Blackburn not only convinced her that Berkeley was the school for her, but that she would do her graduate research on telomeres, in Blackburn's laboratory.

Under Dr. Blackburn's supervision, Greider threw herself into the search for the telomere's mysterious regulating enzyme. In what the Lasker Award Committee would later describe as "a tour de force of biochemistry," Greider tried one method after another to purify and observe the proteins found in the telomeres, trying to discover which, if any, performed the enzymatic activity they were looking for.

Elizabeth Blackburn Biography Photo
After seven or eight months of dead ends, Greider and Blackburn discussed another possible experiment, using oligonucleotides of DNA produced in a chemical synthesizer, rather than bacteria. Greider's father was recently divorced and had suffered a heart attack the previous year. Dreading a long holiday at home with an unhappy family, Carol Greider set up the new experiment a few days in advance, and returned to the laboratory on Christmas Day to check the results. She could not have found a more welcome gift. An unfamiliar protein was distinctly visible in the telomere, performing an enzymatic action that looked very much like what Blackburn and others had predicted.

For months afterwards, Blackburn and Greider tested every possible alternative explanation for the activity they were seeing. By spring they were certain. The enzyme they named "telomerase" was regulating the growth of the telomere, adding layers of repetitive DNA to the end of the chromosome when the cell was young, and then turning off, leaving the telomere to wear away and the cell to die.

Their findings created a sensation in the scientific community and soon spread to the popular press. Overenthusiastic journalists saw a cure for cancer -- or even a means to reverse the aging process -- just around the corner. In fact, Blackburn and Greider had opened the door to a new field of inquiry into these topics, one that may in time lead to new treatments for degenerative diseases, as well as cancer.

Carol Greider remained in Elizabeth Blackburn's laboratory for four years. After being awarded her Ph.D. in 1987, she was recruited by the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, the Long Island research institute led for many years by DNA pioneer James Watson. While continuing her research at Cold Harbor, she lectured at nearby State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Elizabeth Blackburn Biography Photo
In 1990, Elizabeth Blackburn moved from Berkeley to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She chaired the department from 1993 to 1997. Carol Greider moved from Cold Springs in 1997 to accept a professorship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, where she is now a Professor and Director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

From 1996 to 2001, Carol Greider served on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission appointed by President Bill Clinton. Dr. Blackburn was appointed to its successor organization, the President's Council on Bioethics, in 2001, but soon ran afoul of White House politics. Blackburn supported human embryonic stem cell research, a practice President George W. Bush opposed. In 2004, her term on the council was terminated, prompting outrage from many in the scientific community, who saw an executive branch seeking scientific justification for political decisions, rather than basing science policy on sound research.

Elizabeth Blackburn is now the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at UCSF, serving in both the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow of the Salk Institute. Her research team continues their work exploring the telomerase and telomere biology. Over the years, they have succeeded in more than doubling the life span of cells in the laboratory. Dr. Greider's current research focuses on the biochemistry of telomerase, and on the consequences of telomere dysfunction, including the role of telomeres in tumor growth.

Elizabeth Blackburn Biography Photo
As the implications of their discoveries have become more apparent, Blackburn and Greider have been showered with honors, including America's top medical honor, the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, in 2006. The following year, Elizabeth Blackburn was named one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People." Their work received the most public recognition of all in 2009. In awarding Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, the Swedish Academy noted that 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."

Over the years, Blackburn and Greider have remained close friends, and both have raised families while carrying out their historic research. They continue their research and, as others guided them, they have served as mentors to another generation of research scientists, men and women who will continue their work for years to come.

This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:18 EDT
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