Elizabeth Blackburn

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Biography of Elizabeth Blackburn, Australian scientist, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, led the discovery of an enzyme that forms telomeres during DNA duplication.

In 2007, Time magazine included her in the list of the 100 most influential personalities in the world.

Elizabeth Blackburn belongs to the most prestigious scientific societies in the world such as the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Institute of Medicine and the Royal Society of London.

Childhood and education of Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Helen Blackburn was born on November 26, 1948 in Hobart, capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.

Her father was a doctor and his name was Harold Stewart Blackburn.

Her mother was named Marcia Constance Jack and she was also a doctor.

From a very young age, Elizabeth was drawn to the exuberance, variety and animal richness of Tasmania’s natural environment. With the help of her parents, she learned to observe it carefully.

On this South Australian island, it is sometimes possible to see the spectacular dancing rays of the Northern Lights in these southern skies. Australian auroras occur when charged particles from solar activity are on their way to Earth.

Hobart Tasmania
Fans enjoy the pleasure of a Northern Lights on a Hobart beach. Credit: web australia.com

After finishing her high school studies in Hobart, with excellent grades, Elizabeth obtained a scholarship to study biochemistry at the University of Melbourne.

The University of Melbourne is a public university founded in 1853. It is the second oldest university in Australia. Credit: Wikipedia. Maniago

Elizabeth Blackburn continued her studies in England

In 1970, after obtaining a university degree in Biochemistry, Elizabeth Blackburn applied as a predoctoral student at the Cambridge Medical Research Council laboratory.

In this laboratory, Watson and Crick had elucidated the structure of DNA, taking advantage of the investigations of Rosalind Franklin.

Given her excellent grades from the University of Melbourne, Elizabeth was admitted as a predoctoral student and was mentored by Frederick Sanger, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1958 and 1980.

Doctor Sanger
British biochemist Frederick Sanger twice laureate of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Credit: Wikipedia. Author: National Institutes of Health, USA.

Together with this famous researcher, the young Elizabeth learned the basic rules of scientific research: methodological rigor, reflection, thoroughness and perseverance.

Dr. Sanger proposed the sequencing of RNA fragments as a research topic.

RNA is a nucleic acid (RiboNucleicAcid) and can be defined as the molecule formed by a single chain of ribonucleotides. These consist of ribose, a phosphate, and one of the four nitrogenous bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and uracil).

Cellular RNA is linear and single-stranded. But in the genome of some viruses it is double-stranded.

Nucleic acids were discovered in 1867 when they were isolated from the nucleus of the cell. DNA cannot act alone, and uses RNA to transfer this vital information during protein synthesis.

The role of RNA in protein synthesis was suspected in 1939. Severo Ochoa won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1959 after discovering how RNA was synthesized.

When Elizabeth Blackburn was 26 years old, in 1975, she obtained her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge.

During her doctoral courses, Elizabeth met John Sedat, an American molecular biologist, a postdoctoral student at the same university.

After a few brief relationships, they married in 1975 and chose to move immediately to the United States, where they had a postdoctoral job offer at Yale University, Connecticut, in the northeast of the USA.

In 1986 they had a son, whom they named David Benjamin.

Yale University is a private university, founded in 1701, and one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the United States.

Elizabeth Blackburn enjoyed a postdoctoral stay in the laboratory of Joseph G. Gall, a cell biologist at the afore mentioned Yale University.

Doctor Gall
Joseph Gall was the founder of modern molecular biology. Credit: web laskerfoundation.org

Joseph Grafton Gall (born April 14, 1928) was an American cell biologist who was noted for his studies of the details of the structure and function of chromosomes.

In addition, Joseph Gall placed special emphasis on stimulating the work of women biologists, at a time when this attitude was very rare.

In those years, Joseph Gall had started the cultivation of a freshwater ciliated protozoan, called Tetrahymena, whose genome is made up of many small linear minichromosomes.

And he had devised a method to isolate the many chromosome ends that Tetrahymena possesses. These ends are called telomeres.

To better understand this research, it must be remembered that the hereditary material of living organisms, that is, DNA, is highly folded and coiled on itself inside cells, forming chromosomes.

Protecting the ends of the chromosomes are the so-called telomeres, a kind of “hood” whose essential function is to maintain chromosome stability.

Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes. Credit: Wikipedia

When a cell divides to generate two daughter cells, its chromosomes need to be completely duplicated over their entire length and not damaged.

There is a specific enzyme called telomerase which is responsible for these chromosomes to be copied faithfully.

In the 1930s, these terminal structures were shown to have special properties to prevent chromosomes from being damaged. They were called telomeres. But its operation remained an enigma.

The high proportion of chromosome ends available in the protozoan Tetrahymena made it an excellent model for analyzing telomeres.

In 1978, Joseph Gall commissioned Elizabeth Blackburn to help him identify the molecular composition of telomeres in Tetrahymena.

Elizabeth Blackburn discovered that Tetrahymena telomeres were made up of short highly repetitive DNA fragments, rich in guanine and thymine, the synthesis of which depended on a new enzyme activity.

Joseph Gall, Elizabeth Blackburn, and their team suggested that telomeres were related to cellular deterioration or aging.

According to her hypothesis, telomeres get shorter over time until chromosomes become too short and finally reach a “critical length”, beyond which they can no longer divide.

When a new division is impossible, irreversible decay occurs and the cell dies. This process would explain why normal cells die.

Elizabeth and her husband moved to California

Since 1979 Elizabeth Blackburn worked at the University of California at Berkeley, where Carol Greider was beginning to study Biology.

Carol Greider
Carol Greider, was researching at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Credit: web scientificwomen.com

In 1980, at a scientific meeting on genetic material, Elizabeth Blackburn presented the results of her work with the telomeres of Tetrahymena.

Among those present was Harvard Medical School professor of genetics, Jack W. Szostak.

Dr. Szostak was very interested in the investigations of Elizabeth and her team. After an intense exchange of ideas, a common project emerged aimed at obtaining a better understanding of telomeres.

The results were published in the journal Nature in 1984, arousing great interest among specialists.

In addition, this work marked the next priority research goal on the subject: deciphering how telomere DNA makes copies of itself within the cell when it reproduces.

In this phase of the work, Carol Greider’s contribution was absolutely essential.

Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider enriched the team with their great perseverance and extreme experimental rigor.

Finally, they were able to describe the contribution of the telomerase enzyme in the elongation of DNA chains and propose the mechanism that compensates for the incomplete replication of the ends of linear chromosomes.

Both became world leaders in manipulating telomere enzyme activity in cells.

Elizabeth Blackburn’s career

In 1986, Elizabeth Blackburn was appointed professor and laboratory director at the University of California, Berkeley.

After 13 years at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1990 she moved to the University of San Francisco, where she has worked in two departments: biochemistry-biophysics and microbiology-immunology.

In 1993, she was appointed director of the department of Microbiology and Immunology.

She joined the Bioethics Commission of the United States in 2001.

Since 2003 she also has a US nationality.

In 2004, she retired from the Bioethics Commission, disagreeing with the restrictions that the George W. Bush administration imposed on cell research.

Elizabeth and Bono
Elizabeth Blackburn with U2 singer Bono at a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. Credit: web nytimes.com Author: William Thomas Cain

Importance of Elizabeth Blackburn Research

Telomeres are related to cellular aging.

Blackburn and Greider also found that cancer cells are able to continue to produce more telomerase, thus causing tumors to appear.

For this reason, telomeres remain at the forefront of the scientific landscape, and Elizabeth Blackburn, along with other researchers, is working to elucidate new functions of telomerase and contribute to the design of anticancer therapies.

Awards given to Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Blackburn has received numerous awards:

  • Eli Lilly Award for Microbiology (1988).
  • Prize of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States in Molecular Biology (1990).
  • The Gold Medal of the American Cancer Society (2000).
  • Dr. AH Heineken Award for Medicine (2004).
  • Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2006) together with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak.
  • Louisa Gross Horwitz Award (2007) together with Joseph G. Gall and Carol Greider.
  • L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science (2008).
  • Paul-Ehrlich and Ludwig-Darmstaedter Award (2009) together with Carol Greider.
  • Nobel Prize in Medicine (2009), along with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak.

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