This morning, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009 was awarded 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.
But, what is a telomere and why is this research important?
Telomeres are the “caps” at the ends of chromosomes. The long, thread-like DNA molecules that carry our genes are packed into structures called chromosomes, and telomeres are found at the ends of the chromosomes.
Telomerase is an enzyme that forms these caps.
Telomeres are important because they help regulate chromosome deterioration.
If the telomeres are too short, cells age. What’s more, certain inherited diseases are characterized by a defective telomerase, which results in damaged cells.
On the other hand, if telomerase activity is high, telomere length is maintained, and cellular senescence is delayed. This is the case in cancer cells, which can be considered to have eternal life.
The award of the Nobel Prize recognizes the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies.