Telomeres and the Nobel Prize

The science of aging has been under serious consideration for a number of years within the scientific community. Many of the smartest minds in the world have been attracted to this field of study to better understand its complexities and to find ways to, if not halt aging, than to age better.

The Nobel Prize

Years of work and progress in the field of aging culminated in the award of the Nobel Prize, the highest honor in the world of science. Australian-born Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009, alongside Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, for their life-long work on telomeres and telomerase.

In 1980, Elizabeth Blackburn discovered that telomeres have a particular DNA. In 1982, together with Jack Szostak, she went on to prove that this DNA prevents chromosomes from being broken down. In 1984, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider discovered the enzyme telomerase, which produces the telomeres’ DNA.

Telomerase

Each time our cells divide, our telomeres become just a little bit shorter. Eventually, they become too short to allow any further cell division to take place. This is known as the Hayflick Limit and is thought to be around 50-70 cell divisions. At this point, the cells undergo senescence and even apoptosis (cell death).

When cells can no longer divide, this negatively affects their ability to renew themselves and keep the body working optimally. It is no surprise then that shorter telomeres are linked to the onset of many age-related diseases.

With Elizabeth Blackburn’s discovery of telomerase and years of subsequent research across the wider scientific community, we now know more about the role of telomerase in aging. A natural enzyme found in embryonic stem cells, epidermal cells and sperm cells, telomerase replaces the lost segments of telomeres, allowing for a greater number of cell divisions. This can prolong our body’s healthy lifespan and prevent or delay the onset of many age-related diseases.

 

 

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