Today’s award of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine to Elizabeth Blackburn of UCSF, Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University and Jack Szostak at Harvard, “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase,” is a “Nobel no-brainer,” said Stephen Kowalczykowski, distinguished professor of microbiology and of molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis.
“It was a most appropriate and well deserved award. The discovery had broad implications; from understanding a fundamental aspect of chromosome biology to providing a basis for treating cancer and limiting aging,” Kowalczykowski said in an email.
“Awarding a Nobel Prize for understanding telomere structure and replication was a given (and to my mind, overdue),” said Neil Hunter, professor and Howard Hughes Fellow in microbiology and molecular and cellular biology. “And I couldn’t think of a more deserving trio of scientists.”
The impact of the discoveries for biology and medicine has been very high, sustained and of fundamental importance, Hunter said.
Lifeng Xu joined UC Davis as assistant professor of microbiology earlier this year after 8 years as a postdoc in Blackburn’s lab at UCSF.
“I’m really happy for her to get it,” Xu said of the award news. “She’s a great scientist, and such a humble person.”
Telomeres, Xu said, are structures on the ends of chromosomes. Normally, a loose end of DNA is regarded by the cell as a sign of damage that needs to be repaired, and telomeres stop this from happening. They also allow cells to continue dividing, which can be beneficial (in stem cells) or harmful (in cancer).
Every time a cell divides into two new cells, it copies its DNA. The enzyme that copies DNA cannot reach the end of the chromosome, so normally the telomeres become slightly shorter every time the cell divides. That puts a limit on how many divisions a cell can go through.
The telomerase enzyme restores the telomere after each division, so that the cell can continue to divide without limit, as in cancer.
Xu’s lab at UC Davis is interested in proteins that bind to telomeres and that help to protect telomeres, and that also help recruit the telomerase enzyme to the site. If we can better understand these structures, we might be able to exploit them to interfere with telomerase activity in cancer cells, Xu said.
Another UC Davis and UC link: co-recipient Carol Greider’s father, Kenneth Greider, was a physics professor at UC Davis, and she grew up in Davis. Carol Greider has a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, where she worked with Blackburn.