As a result of reading TheScientist for September 22, 2010, I realized that You Tube had a number of videos with Elizabeth Blackburn, who received the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her discovery of telomeres, timekeepers and healthkeepers of cell division, and of telomerase, an associated enzyme. Here’s a terrific sample.
My first acquaintance with telomeres came in a Biology of Aging class in which a professor asked us to consider how a child’s body knows that the child has reached the right age for puberty to begin. Somehow the body can count all those years from birth. How? And what might this have to do with aging?
Barbara McClintock first realized the special properties of the ends of chromosomes with nothing but a microscope and her own brilliant studies of corn chromosomes. But with the help of modern DNA sequencing and other recent techniques, Elizabeth Blackburn was able to learn much more. As a result, we now know that telomeres shorten during cell division, and that telomerase lengthens them again and again and again. We also know that when telomeres fail to be rebuilt, and eventually disappear, cell division stops. This can lead to various kinds of damage, including heart disease, cancer, and some of the other killers associated with old age.
To me this is all yet another wonder: the wonder of DNA, the wonder of RNA, the wonder of telomeres and telomerase and of Blackburn and McClintock and this whole world of molecules of life and inspired researchers into them.