Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Nobel telomere

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, October 7th, 2009

Nobel prizes are always exciting. This year's Physiology or Medicine prize reveals fascinating basic science about our cells which might have revolutionary applications in health.

It was awarded, according to the Nobel committee at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase", a discovery made by investigators Elizabeth Blackburn, her colleague Jack W. Szostak and her student Carol Greider.

The genetic information of living beings is written in the molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, which form tangles called chromosomes within the nuclei on each of our cells.

Each chromosome is formed by a single, very long, DNA molecule. When it has to be copied, before the cell divides in two, the task is performed by an enzyme molecular machine made of protein.

Picture it like this: the famous DNA double helix is like a train railway. To copy it, both rails are separated and the enzyme slides over each one, reading the letters that form it and inserting the corresponding letters on the other side. Like a little train that advances in a rail, constructing the opposing rail. In the end, we have two complete and identical railways.


But when the enzyme reaches the end of the rail, it cannot advance any longer, and does not construct the last span of the opposing rail. Each time that a chromosome is copied, their tips (telomeres, from the greek telos, end, and meros, part) would shorten!

Using a very ingenious experiment, Blackburn and Szostak discovered in 1982 that telomeres protect chromosomes so they are not destroyed. They constructed mini-chromosomes and added telomeres to some, but not all, of them. When they inserted the chromosomes inside cells, those with telomeres survived, but the ones that didn't have them were rapidly eliminated.

And in 1984 (Christmas day!), Blackburn and Greider discovered another enzyme that allows telomeres to maintain their size. It achieves it because it has a mold with the correct letter sequence (CCCCAA) that have to be inserted in each tip of DNA. They named it "telomerase" (the termination "ase" in biochemistry indicated an enzyme).

Today we know that telomeres and telomerase play a role in aging and cellular death (when telomeres are shortened) and influence the uncontrolled multiplication of cancerous cells (because their telomerase is very active and their telomeres are not shortened). There are even vaccines in development to try to fight cancer by inactivating the telomerase of tumors.

Basic science, motivated by simple curiosity, offers a new medical promise, although a far one.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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1 comment:

  1. Wow! That's very interesting. The benefits are obviously many. I will have to check out. Thanks!
    Term papers within deadlines.