September 21, 2012
Nobel Prize winner and Director of the Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics Carol Greider delivered the first in a series of talks as part of the BCMB Friday seminars. Organized by the BCMB Program, these seminars are intended to highlight research in BCMB departments and stimulate interaction within the BCMB community. A capacity audience comprising students and professors assembled in the Wood Basic Auditorium to hear Dr. Greider‘s talk titled “Telomeres and Telomerase – Past, Present and Future”.
Dr. Greider shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Dr. Jack W. Szostak for “… the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”. Following the opening introductions by BCMB student Korin Bullen, Dr. Greider took the podium and began by quoting George Carlin, “There’s no present. There’s only the immediate future and the recent past.” This was the underlying theme of her talk during which she spoke about the research that led to her path-breaking discovery and also the future direction of her laboratory.
She began the lecture by recounting her early days as a graduate student in Dr. Blackburn’s laboratory at Berkeley. Her interest was centered on the basic understanding of chromosomal maintenance with a focus on telomeres. Telomeres are repetitive stretches of DNA which form the important protective tip-structures at the ends of chromosomes. Dr. Greider set out into unchartered territory to discover and ultimately characterize an enzyme, telomerase, which maintains telomeres in the ciliate, tetrahymena.
She went on to describe the ensuing years spent as an investigator in the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory where she and her collaborators showed that human telomeres progressively shorten in primary human cells. This and other telomere related research elucidated the vital role of telomere length and its implications in cellular aging (senescence), cancer, immune disorders and apoptosis.
Dr. Greider joined the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as the Daniel Nathans Professor in the department of Molecular Biology & Genetics. Here, her group focused their research on the biochemistry and secondary RNA structure of human telomerase. She further widened her research scope to study dyskeratosis congenita, a rare progressive disease that resembles premature ageing, affecting the integumentary system leading to bone marrow failure. Dr. Greider’s group used mouse models of this disease to show that poor telomere maintenance due to genetic mutations in the telomerase RNA cause this phenotype. She also showed the reversal of this phenotype after restoration of telomere length.
The future of the Greider lab lies in understanding the role of telomere length equilibrium and to establish a model of ‘Telomere Length Homeostasis’ to provide insight into disease mechanisms.
The talk was followed by a Q and A session and subsequently a Happy Hour with students and faculty members for a more informal discussion.