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Elizabeth Blackburn, Telomeres and Telomerase

written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 7/29/2011

Elizabeth Blackburn is a biologist who studies many different facets of telomeres - the tips of the chromosome which protect it during cell division. She also co-discovered telomerase, an enzyme which controls telomeres.

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    Elizabeth Blackburn 

    Elizabeth Blackburn was born on November 26, 1948, in Hobart, Tasmania. Her parents, Harold and Marcia were both medical physicians. During her early life, Blackburn attended the Broadland House school in Tasmania before moving to Melbourne, Australia. She completed high school in the city and moved onto the University of Melbourne with a full scholarship. After completing her Bachelors of Science in 1970 and Masters of Science in 1972, she attended the University of Cambridge for her Ph.D. Attaining her doctorate in 1975, she began her postdoctoral studies at Yale University. The focus of her early work was molecular and cellular biology.

    Dr. Blackburn began work in the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1978. In 1990, she transferred to the University of California, San Francisco, working in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. She ended up serving as the Department Chair from 1993 to 1999.

    Blackburn serves as the current Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. She also serves on the Science Advisory Board of the Genetics Policy Institute and is a non-resident fellow of the Salk Institute.

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    Telomere Research

    Telomere on Chromosomes 

    Blackburn's major contribution to genetics and biology is the discovery of the molecular nature of telomeres. Telomeres serve as the protective caps on the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes, helping to preserve the information found in genes.

    Telomere length plays a crucial role in the life of a cell. A shortening mechanism limits cells to a specific number of divisions known as the Hayflick limit, which possibly establishes a restriction on lifespan. At the same time, many researchers believe that by lengthening telomeres, we could potentially increase lifespans. Blackburn's research also shows that abnormalities in telomeres contribute to cancer. Her studies opened up a new field of cancer research, and provided a suite of new targets for future therapeutics.

    Additional research helped Carol W. Greider and Blackburn discover the ribonucleoprotein enzyme, telomerase. Telomerase adds repetitive sequences of “TTAGGG" nucleotides to chromosomes. These repeats are telomeres and are added to chromosomes in germ cells and stems cells. Telomerase is also active in tumor cells. It adds telomeres and perpetuates the life of malignant cells which would otherwise die.

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    President George W. Bush 

    In 2001, Blackburn was appointed by President George W. Bush to the President's Council on Bioethics. During her brief tenure, she became an outspoken proponent of stem cell research. However, the administration's policy was to restrict federal funding to research involving the controversial science. She was fired in February 2004, which caused a number of scientists to express outrage.

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    Notable Honors

    Elizabeth Blackburn has been honored with a number of awards and distinguished recognitions. Among these are an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Harvard University, Alfred P. Sloan Award in 2001, Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of the World in 2007 and the Mike Hogg Award in 2009.

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    University of California San Francisco,

    Discover Magazine,

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    Image Sources

    Elizabeth Blackburn. (Supplied by Gerbil at Wikimedia Commons; GNU Free Documentation License;

    Telomere on Chromosomes. (Supplied by NASA; Public Domain;

    President George W. Bush. (Supplied by the Executive Office of the President of the United States; Public Domain;

Scientists that Changed Genomic Research

Throughout history, a number of scientists have changed the way we study genetics. These prominent individuals take a place amongst the greatest researchers of all time.
  1. Elizabeth Blackburn, Telomeres and Telomerase
  2. Famous Scientists in Genetics: Gregor Mendel
  3. Famous Scientists in Genetics - Marshall Warren Nirenberg
  4. Stars of the Science Field: Frederick Sanger