Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The 2009 Nobel in Medicine, Telomeres, Joe Gall, women and RNA

This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jack Szostak, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider for the discovery of telomeres and telomerase. If you want a nice summary of the science behind the prize, I would recommend nobelprize.org. What struck my attention was Carol Greider's mention of Joe Gall in the New York Times:
The study of telomeres is notable as a field of research in which female scientists are particularly prominent. Dr. Greider said she ascribed this to a “founder effect,” the founder being Joseph Gall of Yale University. Dr. Gall trained Dr. Blackburn and other women, and they recruited others to the field “because there is a slight tendency for women to work with other women,” Dr. Greider said. She herself trained with Dr. Blackburn.
One of those "other women" was my own thesis advisor, Joan Steitz. Another woman who is just offstage in this story is Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for the discovery of mobile genetic elements, but whose work on the instability of broken chromosome ends (1941 in Genetics: "The stability of broken ends of chromosomes in Zea Mays") was an important part of the background that prepared people for the discovery of telomeres (if broken ends were unstable, then normal ends had to be somehow different).

Another motif to this story is RNA. Telomerase turned out to be an RNA enzyme. Jack Szostak went on to actively investigate the origins of catalytically active RNA. And Joe Gall has been working on RNA all along.