Recorded: 01 Jun 2000
Mostly when you give somebody a project, you try to give them something, which is doable and feasible because you don’t want them to run up against walls and so. And so sometimes you say lets take a safe project and lets have a risky one, you know you try and do that. And at the time Carol came, well, we thought from the behavior of telomeres there had to be something going on. And one of the list of possibilities was that, there was actually, what we did find out was telomerase.
And so I’d done—I got tenure. That also made me very brave we should point out. Getting tenure, you know, made me feel I can do what I want to do now. And so I did some just some little experiments where I put everything but the kitchen sink into a reaction. Because I thought, “Who knows? Do we need replication? Do we use all the triphosphates, all the energy sources, ribotriphosphates? Put everything in!”
And I got some production of telomeric signal over time in this incubation, and I said, “Ah, right! Got something here worth following up.” And, Carol—bless her—said, “Yes!” She was really interested and wanted to follow this up and look for this new enzyme. I’m like, “Wow!” Because that’s a very rare student who would have that sort of confidence and kind of intellectual, sort of, interest to say, “Hey, I’m going to do something which could certainly fail.” And then she was totally persistent and just really kept doing things and was very experimentally good. So, it was great cause we would be very back and forth in the sense that I’d think, “My god! There’s this horrible artifact.” And then she’d say, “No! I think I’ll do this.” And then she’d come back and say, “I think there’s an artifact.” And I’d say, “No!”… So it was really wonderful. And it was a very exciting time because after some few months, it really—some months, it became clear there was something there. It wasn’t just some weird, sort of unexpected artifact. And that’s mostly what you worry about; an in vitro reactions for something, which now we know is not a very abundant activity. So all sorts of artifacts can fool you. So it took a lot of kind of thinking of different ways you could try to test the system and say, “Is this just an artifact for this reason or an artifact for some other reason?” But it kind of started to make some biological sense. And after a while. So that was, yes. So it was great! And we’ve sort of taken directions where we’ve sort of pursued different kinds of questions. But I really feel there’s a lot of kind of—we have good intellectual contact as well.
Elizabeth Blackburn is a leader in the study of telomere function and biology. She earned her B.Sc. (1970) and M.Sc. (1972) degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and her Ph.D. (1975) from the University of Cambridge in England. She did her postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology at Yale from 1975 to 1977. Blackburn is currently a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and a faculty member in the Program in Biological Sciences and Biomedical Sciences at UCSF as well as a Non-Resident Fellow of the Salk Institute.
Blackburn discovered the ribonucleprotein enzyme, telomerase, and currently researches the effect that the manipulation of telomerase activity has on cells. Her laboratory work intends to elucidate the biology of telomerase and telomere.
She attended her first meeting at CSHL in the late 1970’s and has organized Telomeres and Telomerase meetings at the Lab. Blackburn was a mentor to former Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientist, Dr. Carol W. Greider.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009 was awarded jointly to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase".
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation, 2009
Blackburn is an elected Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), the Royal Society of London (1992), and the American Academy of Microbiology (1993). She is a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1993) and Past-President of the American Society for Cell Biology (1998).