Nobel Women

Elizabeth Blackburn, dr Elizabeth Blackburn
Paul Sakuma/AP

Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 Co-Winner of Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

November 26, 2009
by Haley A. Lovett
Currently a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn has received many awards and honors for her work in microbiology.

Elizabeth Blackburn’s Early Days

Elizabeth Blackburn was born on Nov. 26, 1948, in Tasmania, Australia. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Melbourne, and went on to earn her doctorate in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Cambridge in England in 1975. In the late 1970s, Blackburn did postdoctoral research at Yale University.

Dr. Blackburn’s Notable Accomplishments

Blackburn worked as an assistant and later as an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the department of molecular biology before becoming a full professor there. Blackburn later served as chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of California, San Francisco, and as a professor at the same institution.

Blackburn analyzed the molecular makeup of telomeres. Later, in 1984, while studying the tiny organism Tetrahymena with a graduate student, Carol Greider, the two discovered the enzyme telomerase, an enzyme that protects telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that keep DNA together and regulate how cells divide, Time Magazine explains. Too little of the enzyme telomerase can mean that cells become damaged or age too quickly, while too much telomerase can aid cancer cells in dividing quickly. The discovery of this enzyme may be key in fighting cancer and preventing premature cell aging in the future.

For their work with telomeres and telomerase, Blackburn and Greider, along with Jack W. Szostak, were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The Rest of the Story

Blackburn has been a member of many cancer research organizations, including the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She is also a member of the National Advisory Council on Aging.

In addition to her recent award of the Nobel Prize, Balckburn has received a number of honorary doctorate degrees from noteworthy institutions, and an extensive list of awards and honors, including being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 great scientists and thinkers in 2007. A complete list of Blackburn’s awards and honors can be found on her profile page at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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