Monday, October 05, 2009

This years Nobel Prize in Medicine

This years Nobel prize in Medicine goes jointly to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak for their work on telomeres. In the 1970s, Blackburn identified repeating segments at the ends of DNA in Tetrahymena while Szostak found that single-stranded DNA was rapidly degraded in yeast. Blackburn and Szostak then collaborated on a project, finding that the Tetrahymena DNA protected the single-stranded DNA from degradation in yeast. In 1984, Blackburn and Greider, her graduate student, discovered telomerase. The Nobel citation lauds these researchers for their contribution to the study of aging, cancer, and other diseases. "The discoveries by Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies," it says.

The mysterious telomere

The chromosomes contain our genome in their DNA molecules. As early as the 1930s, Hermann Muller (Nobel Prize 1946) and Barbara McClintock (Nobel Prize 1983) had observed that the structures at the ends of the chromosomes, the so-called telomeres, seemed to prevent the chromosomes from attaching to each other. They suspected that the telomeres could have a protective role, but how they operate remained an enigma.

When scientists began to understand how genes are copied, in the 1950s, another problem presented itself. When a cell is about to divide, the DNA molecules, which contain the four bases that form the genetic code, are copied, base by base, by DNA polymerase enzymes. However, for one of the two DNA strands, a problem exists in that the very end of the strand cannot be copied. Therefore, the chromosomes should be shortened every time a cell divides – but in fact that is not usually the case (Fig 1).

Both these problems were solved when this year's Nobel Laureates discovered how the telomere functions and found the enzyme that copies it.

Telomere DNA protects the chromosomes

In the early phase of her research career, Elizabeth Blackburn mapped DNA sequences. When studying the chromosomes of Tetrahymena, a unicellular ciliate organism, she identified a DNA sequence that was repeated several times at the ends of the chromosomes. The function of this sequence, CCCCAA, was unclear. At the same time, Jack Szostak had made the observation that a linear DNA molecule, a type of minichromosome, is rapidly degraded when introduced into yeast cells.

Blackburn presented her results at a conference in 1980. They caught Jack Szostak's interest and he and Blackburn decided to perform an experiment that would cross the boundaries between very distant species (Fig 2). From the DNA of Tetrahymena, Blackburn isolated the CCCCAA sequence. Szostak coupled it to the minichromosomes and put them back into yeast cells. The results, which were published in 1982, were striking – the telomere DNA sequence protected the minichromosomes from degradation. As telomere DNA from one organism, Tetrahymena, protected chromosomes in an entirely different one, yeast, this demonstrated the existence of a previously unrecognized fundamental mechanism. Later on, it became evident that telomere DNA with its characteristic sequence is present in most plants and animals, from amoeba to man.

An enzyme that builds telomeres

Carol Greider, then a graduate student, and her supervisor Blackburn started to investigate if the formation of telomere DNA could be due to an unknown enzyme. On Christmas Day, 1984, Greider discovered signs of enzymatic activity in a cell extract. Greider and Blackburn named the enzyme telomerase, purified it, and showed that it consists of RNA as well as protein (Fig 3). The RNA component turned out to contain the CCCCAA sequence. It serves as the template when the telomere is built, while the protein component is required for the construction work, i.e. the enzymatic activity. Telomerase extends telomere DNA, providing a platform that enables DNA polymerases to copy the entire length of the chromosome without missing the very end portion.

Blackburn was also the Daily Scan poll favorite. She led the pack with 43 percent of the vote. She was followed by her co-laureate Szostak who garnered 25 percent of the vote.

Szostak JW, Blackburn EH. Cloning yeast telomeres on linear plasmid vectors. Cell 1982; 29:245-255.
Greider CW, Blackburn EH. Identification of a specific telomere terminal transferase activity in Tetrahymena extracts. Cell 1985; 43:405-13.
Greider CW, Blackburn EH. A telomeric sequence in the RNA of Tetrahymena telomerase required for telomere repeat synthesis. Nature 1989; 337:331-7.

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