The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1989

Thomas R. Cech

Born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 8, 1947, Tom Cech was raised and educated in Iowa (B.A. in chemistry from Grinnell College, 1970). He obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and then engaged in postdoctoral research in the department of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1978 he joined the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in 1988 and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1990.

In 1982 Tom Cech and his research group announced that an RNA molecule from Tetrahymena, a single-celled pond organism, cut and rejoined chemical bonds in the complete absence of proteins. Thus RNA was not restricted to being a passive carrier of genetic information, but could have an active role in cellular metabolism. This discovery of self-splicing RNA provided the first exception to the long-held belief that biological reactions are always catalyzed by proteins. In addition, it has been heralded as providing a new, plausible scenario for the origin of life; because RNA can be both an information-carrying molecule and a catalyst, perhaps the first self-reproducing system consisted of RNA alone. Only years later was it recognized that RNA catalysts, or "ribozymes," might provide a new class of highly specific pharmaceutical agents, able to cleave and thereby inactivate viral RNAs or other RNAs involved in disease.

Dr. Cech's work has been recognized by many national and international awards and prizes, including the Heineken Prize of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (1988), the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1988), the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1989), and the National Medal of Science (1995). In 1987 Dr. Cech was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and also awarded a lifetime professorship by the American Cancer Society.

In 2000 Dr. Cech moved to Maryland to be president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He continues research on ribozyme structure and on telomerase in his Boulder, Colorado, laboratory.

Thomas R. Cech is a distinguished scientist and educator. Since 2000, he has been president of the nations largest private source of support for biomedical research and science education the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

In 1989, at the age of 41, Thomas R. Cech was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking discovery of ribozymes, or catalytic RNA. This discovery was so significant that it altered the central dogma of the biosciences. Scientists who once thought that RNA (ribonucleic acid) in living cells was passive, learned that it can act as an enzyme and function as a biologic catalyst. As a result, chemistry and biology textbooks have been revised and a new way of thinking about biochemical research has begun. This discovery has also sparked intense efforts to develop ribozymes as pharmaceuticals directed against viruses, cancer and genetic diseases.

Cechs other area of focus is telomerase an unusual, yet key enzyme responsible for replication of chromosomes, which has implications in the scientific understanding of the duplication of cancer cells. His lab's discovery of a telomerase subunit is helping scientists better understand the behavior of HIV.

Born in Chicago and raised in Iowa City, Iowa, Cech developed a love of science as a child. He discovered his penchant for biological chemistry and met his wife, Carol, while an undergraduate at Grinnell College. While they both earned doctorates in chemistry from the University of California-Berkeley, he found his scientific niche chromosome structure and function, which remains the focus of his work to this day. After completing postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cech joined the University of Colorado faculty in 1978. He has been a Hughes investigator since 1988.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute supports hundreds of biomedical scientists working at the forefront of their fields. Although employees of the Institute, Hughes investigators continue to be based at their institutions, typically leading a research group of 10-25 students, postdoctoral associates and technicians. They also continue to serve as faculty members.

The integration of research and teaching is something Cech firmly believes in. The most vibrant science education experiences, he says, come not from classroom teaching but when undergraduates enter research laboratories where they have the opportunity to work on state-of-the-art equipment and on questions whose answers are not yet known. Keeping HHMI investigators at their institutions is one way HHMI is helping to foster the next generation of researchers.

Cech and HHMI have demonstrated strong support of UVM, providing millions of dollars in aid to UVM researchers and helping to establish both the undergraduate science education HELiX program and the College of Medicine's program in structural biology.

Through his work at HHMI, and his strong sense of responsibility as a scientist and educator, Cech ensures that scientists across the country are equipped with the quality resources they need to help them uncover answers to how the body functions and why diseases occur.

Grandfather Josef, a shoemaker, immigrated to the U.S. from Bohemia in 1913. My other grandparents, also of Czech origin, were first-generation Americans. My father was and is a physician, my mother the homemaker. I was born in Chicago on December 8, 1947.

The safe streets and good schools of Iowa City, Iowa provided the backdrop for the childhood years of my sister Barbara,my brother Richard and myself. My father, who loved physics as much as medicine, interjected a scientific approach and point of view into most every family discussion. I discovered science for myself in fourth grade, collecting rocks and minerals and worrying about how they were formed. By the time I was in junior high school, I would knock on Geology professors' doors at the University of Iowa, asking to see models of crystal structures and to discuss meteorites and fossils.

In 1966 I entered Grinnell College, where I was to derive as much enjoyment studying Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and Constitutional History as Chemistry. I met Carol over the melting point apparatus in a make-up Organic Chemistry lab, starting the partnership of our lives that is now more than 20 years old.

The Chemistry I appreciated the most from textbooks was physical chemistry. However, undergraduate research experiences at Argonne National Laboratory and at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory taught me that I didn't have a long enough attention span for the elaborate plumbing and electronics of gas-phase chemical physics. I was later attracted to biological chemistry because of the almost daily interplay of experimental design, observation, and interpretation.

Berkeley, 1970. Carol and I chose the University of California as much for the excitement of life there as for the excellence of its Chemistry Department. My thesis advisor, John Hearst, had an enthusiasm for chromosome structure and function that proved infectious; I have not yet recovered, nor do I wish to. Long days in the laboratory were punctuated by occasional backpacking trips in the alpine splendor of the Sierra Nevada.

In 1975 we obtained our Ph.D.'s and moved to postdoctoral positions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Carol at Harvard and I at M.I.T. I strengthened my knowledge of biology in Mary Lou Pardue's laboratory, and enjoyed being part of the interactive scientific scene at M.I.T.

We began our first faculty positions at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1978. I was initially attracted by the enthusiasm and energy of the faculty; I have stayed because in my field the intellectual environment here would be very hard to equal. We have benefitted from very fine colleagues, with whom we have shared many great dinners and ski trips to the nearby Rocky Mountains. More recently, life has been transformed by the addition to our family of two energetic daughters, Allison (born 1982) end Jennifer (1986). It promises to return to normal sometime in the next century.

Because of my research group's discoveries, more than a dozen national and international awards preceded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1989. Among them were the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry (American Chemical Society), the Award in Molecular Biology (U.S. National Academy of Sciences), the Heineken Prize (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), and the Lasker Award. I received an honorary D.Sc. degree from Grinnell College in 1987 and from the University of Chicago in 1991. I have been elected to the U. S. National Academy of Sciences (1987) and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988). In 1987 I was awarded a lifetime Professorship by the American Cancer Society, and in 1988 became Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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