Geneticist Jack Szostak Shares Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Jack W. Szostak, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, is one of three co-winners of the 2009 prize.

Jack Szostak

Professor of genetics Jack W. Szostak has won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Elizabeth H. Blackburn (University of California, San Francisco) and Carol W. Greider (Johns Hopkins School of Medicine). The three scientists were recognized for their work on how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. Szostak's home page at Harvard Medical School details his recent work on the synthesis of life on earth: "the related challenges of understanding the origin of life on the early earth, and constructing synthetic cellular life in the laboratory." His lab home page is here; he is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and  has a biographical page there, emphasizing his current work on the origins of life and the re-creation of the first steps in biological synthesis. Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative is described here; Szostak is one of the affiliated faculty members.

According to the Nobel press release, the trio have solved a critical part of a fundamental problem in biology: "how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. The Nobel Laureates have shown that the solution is to be found in the ends of the chromosomes--the telomeres--and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase."

The explanation continues:

The long, thread-like DNA molecules that carry our genes are packed into chromosomes, the telomeres being the caps on their ends. Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak discovered that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation. Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn identified telomerase, the enzyme that makes telomere DNA. These discoveries explained how the ends of the chromosomes are protected by the telomeres and that they are built by telomerase.

If the telomeres are shortened, cells age. Conversely, 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. Certain inherited diseases, in contrast, are characterized by a defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells. 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.


You might also like

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Harvard’s New Football Coach: A Real Tiger

The magazine’s football correspondent advises fans to deal with it.

The Interim President’s Agenda

Alan Garber on campus speech, academics, and his other Harvard priorities

Most popular

Open Book: The Photographer’s Art

Robin Kelsey probes the place of photography within art.

An Ipswich Idyll

Restorations revive the grand spirit of a North Shore estate.

Harvard Corporation to Drop Law School Shield Linked to Slavery

The announcement follows a Law School committee’s recommendation to abandon the shield. 

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults