Dr. Blackburn earned a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge where she worked with Frederick Sanger developing methods to sequence DNA using RNA. In 1975 she moved to the United States and Yale University for a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Joseph Gall. There she began what would become her groundbreaking work on the ciliate, Tetrahymena thermophila, sequencing the ends of chromosomes and uncovering ‘strange’ DNA repeats. She discovered that telomere DNA was being replenished by an unknown mechanism and predicted that it involved an enzyme, a contrary notion at that time. Later, in 1984, while working as an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, she and her graduate student Carol Greider identified telomerase, and later showed that this protein is composed of both a protein and a RNA component, with the RNA serving as the template to add DNA to telomeres. Dr. Blackburn rose to full professorship at UC Berkeley before becoming the Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco. She continues her work there, where she and her lab team are advancing the leading edge of telomere biology.
Most eukaryotic chromosome ends are capped by telomeres, repetitive DNA sequences that protect chromosome termini to maintain genetic information. Dr. Blackburn and her colleagues first discovered that telomeres are composed of 6-base pair segments repeated many times, then went on to uncover the key mechanism used by cells to maintain telomeres. She identified telomerase, the enzyme that synthesizes telomere DNA. Dr. Blackburn’s discoveries have led to observations that telomerase is active in rapidly dividing cells and is almost universally elevated in human cancers, making it an attractive clinical target. A deficiency in telomerase is associated with a set of bone marrow failure syndromes, and shortened telomeres have been linked with elevated incidences of common age-related illnesses, including heart disease. The status of telomeres thus appears to intimately reflect the health status and risk for chronic diseases in humans.
Throughout her distinguished career, whether as the editor of high-profile scientific journals, such as Molecular Cancer Research and Molecular Biology of the Cell, or as a current member of over 30 distinct institutional advisory boards or review committees, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn has spent countless hours in service to her constituency. Further, she has held leadership positions in several scientific societies, including her current appointment as President of the American Association for Cancer Research.
Because of her interest in bioethics and its growing focus in the political debate, Dr. Blackburn extended her reach to the political arena. Between 2002 and 2004, she served in an invited appointment on the President’s Council on Bioethics. She currently is a member of the Senate Rules Committee Stem Cell Research Advisory Panel for the State of California.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Blackburn has been recognized for her seminal contribution to the field of telomere biology with numerous prizes, awards, and honorary degrees, including the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and elections to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute of Medicine. In 2007, Time magazine named her one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World,’ and in 2008 she was the North American Laureate for the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science. The scientific community bestowed upon her the ultimate recognition of her legacy by honoring Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn with the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Dr. Blackburn is currently the Morris Herzstein Endowed Chair in Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow of the Salk Institute.