Elizabeth Blackburn is a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist and the former President of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Her research is focused on understanding a critical structure at the end of chromosomes, called the telomere, which protects DNA during the cell division. These small cell structures are thought to provide important clues for fighting chronic diseases and slowing down the aging process.
Blackburn was born on the Australian island of Tasmania and immigrated to the United States in 1975 in order to conduct her postdoctoral work at Yale University. She joined the faculty at University of California Berkeley in 1978, before moving across the bay to UCSF in 1990. Her breakthrough discovery, for which she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, concerned the process by which cells replicate. Specifically, Blackburn co-discovered an enzyme called “telomerase”, which rebuilds telomeres following cell division. Scientists knew that telomerase broke down during cell division, didn’t know how they were repaired afterward— until Blackburn’s breakthrough discovery.
In the years since her discovery, Blackburn has teamed up with doctors from broad range of fields in order to learn more about the restorative potential of telomerase. “My research is now trying to understand how we can anticipate and alleviate some of the processes…that are leading to increased diseases of aging,” she says.