Elizabeth Blackburn, then a Berkeley professor, challenged her Ph.D. student Carol Greider in the 1980s with some research that clearly wasn’t easy. It turned out to be breakthrough stuff in molecular biology, but neither suspected at the time that it, with work in a couple of intervening decades, would bring them both the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — as it did, as they each found out October 5 in the traditional way, with an early-morning phone call from Stockholm.

Carol Greider at the her Nobel Prize ceremony.  ©The Nobel Foundation 2009. Photo by Frida Westholm
Carol Greider at the her Nobel Prize ceremony. ©The Nobel Foundation 2009. Photo by Frida Westholm

Molecular biologist Greider, whose graduate student days here ended with her 1987 Ph.D., is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University. An early riser, she was folding her laundry around 5 a.m. when The Call came to her home in suburban Baltimore, Maryland. On the opposite coast, Blackburn, a faculty member at UCSF since she left Berkeley in 1990, was asleep, it being two in the morning in San Francisco. She didn’t mind being awakened.

The Nobel news brought glee to the medical and academic community at UCSF (which, coincidentally, is headed by another Berkeley grad alumna, Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, M.P.H. ’88), where Blackburn teaches and does research in biology and physiology. In another hospital setting, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, a similar celebration was taking place for the other leg of the Nobel, geneticist Jack Szostak, who was vital to the research that won the Prize (but happened to lack any major Berkeley connection).

Their combined award-winning work dates back to the 1970s and ‘80s, and migrated with them to other parts of the country, mainly in the East. But what kicked it all into high gear happened at Berkeley when Blackburn, already established as a broundbreaking chromosome researcher, turned Greider loose on a highly adaptable one-celled freshwater-pond-dwelling critter called Tetrahymena. This particular protozoan has a distinct statistical advantage when you’re studying chromosomes; it has around 40,000 of them, compared to the human supply of 23 pairs. Blackburn had established, with Jack Szostak, that the ends of chromosomes are protected — think of shoelace tips, Blackburn says — by repeated DNA sequences. They and others believed that an enzyme of some kind was involved in adding that protection.

So, in April 1984, soon after joining the Blackburn lab, first-year grad student Carol Greider went enzyme-hunting. This was no piece-of-cake assignment. “If you were easily intimidated, you wouldn’t take on that kind of project,” Blackburn has said. “We had to be both rigorous and enterprising, and those are exactly the characteristics that Carol has. The combination is a great strength.”

Many 12-hour days later, monitoring her project even on holidays, Greider hit paydirt on Christmas Day, 1984: biochemical evidence of the hypothesized enzyme that keeps telomeres from wearing down. She went home and danced at length (to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”). The researchers dubbed the enzyme Telomerase.

The chromosome tips are called, in the language of cell biology, telomeres. The enzyme Greider found creates and rebuilds those ends, those telomeres. Telomeres take a beating during cell division — reproduction — but they keep the chromosomes intact, and are then replenished, thanks to that enzyme. The way the process works has implications for understanding aging and longevity, and diseases, particularly cancer, and has become a focal point of the biotechnology industry. Biochemical therapy for some diseases had become a real possibility.

The Nobel Prize announcement summed up the value of the team’s work this way:the discoveries by Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies.”

Blackburn grew up Down Under, in Tasmania, and holds both U.S. and Australian citizenship. A Melbourne newspaper trumpeted her as “the first Aussie woman to win a Nobel Prize.” She joined the Berkeley faculty in 1970 and remained here until her move to UCSF in 1990.

Greider has a greater genetic connection to Berkeley than her research. Her parents, Ken and Jean, met here as grad students, he in physics and she in botany. Both earned their Ph.D.s here, and they married in Berkeley (then moved to San Diego as postdocs). Her UC-system connections are multiple, as well. Her dad was a physics professor at UC Davis. She went to UC Santa Barbara for her undergraduate work in biology before heading to Berkeley for graduate work.

Greider is married to a science historian, Nathaniel Comfort. They have two children, a son, Charles, and a daughter, Gwendolyn, who was quoted in the Baltimore Sun about waking up to the good news early on the big morning. In her words, “My mom was shaking me, saying ‘I won the Nobel Prize!’ and I was like, ‘whoa!’.”

— Dick Cortén

Video (below): Carol Greider at Johns Hopkins, on winning the Nobel Prize (Baltimore Sun)

(Originally published in eGrad, October 2009)