Hereditary information in our body is passed down through our genes. But have you ever thought about HOW the DNA in our cells gets copied perfectly each time? Yes, there are errors but there are also natural mechanisms in place that prevent these from happening as often as we would expect them to. One such mechanism is the provision of a ‘protective cap‘ which is now known as telomeres! So, what are telomeres? Keep reading to find out more!
Elizabeth Blackburn: Lab rat to Laureate
Growing up, she was always fascinated by the biology of organisms and even decorated her room with amino acid models. It was only when she began studying pond scum after her doctoral research that she came across this discovery. She studied the single-celled organism Tetrahymena thermophila that had linear chromosomes and hence, were assumed to have telomeres. Once she ran her sequencing experiments she realized that they had short segments of six nucleotides each that were repetitive.
They have the tendency to allow complete replication of DNA when cells divide and eventually when they are completely run down, the cells die. However, in healthy cells, they just managed to rebuild themselves. They finally managed to sequence the telomeres! So, what next? They needed to how this happens and it could be due to an enzyme because how else do cell building activities happen?
Carol Greider: Battling Dyslexia to Achieving Greatness
This is where Prof. Carol Greider came into the picture as her job was to figure out the mysterious and hypothetical enzyme that was responsible for the regeneration of telomeres. As a child she was dyslexic which made it really hard to focus on what she wanted to study but she eventually got over it and got her to the field of research!
When she joined Prof. Blackburn’s lab, as mentioned earlier, her job was to figure out the mechanism behind the regeneration of the telomeres. She carried out various experiments with artificial telomeres. This was to see if any of the enzymes from the cellular extracts would help in its elongation. After 9 long months, she finally managed to do so and at the mere age of 23, contributed to an award-winning work! She also went on to discover that in cells where telomeres were shorter than usual, they directly contributed to diseases. In cells that had telomerase overactivity, it could cause cancer. This directly forms a link between telomeres and aging as well as cancer.
Impact of their discovery
Needless to say, the impact of their discovery was huge because we were able to understand the cellular basis for aging. We could gain an insight into a possible mechanism for cancer development as well. They’re both still working on the mysteries of these end caps especially on questions such as whether exercise has an effect on aging (telomere functioning)? does growing up in a poverty/ war zone affect a person’s telomeres? Is there a hereditary link involved in the process?
They are also huge advocates of women in science and continue to be! Prof Greider has actively contributed to initiating child care centers and policies for mothers who are working in universities! They are a true representation of how women can achieve success in different aspects of their lives. They do not have to limit themselves to either, to feel successful.
Carol Greider (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/carol-greider
Elizabeth Blackburn (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/elizabeth-blackburn