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Thomas Cech

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

1989

When Professor Thomas Cech was studying an organism called Tetrahymena thermophila in 1980, he noticed something unusual. Even though he had put one of the organism’s ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules into a test tube without any proteins, it spliced itself, cutting itself into specific pieces and joining genetically important fragments together again.   

Until then, scientists had believed that proteins were necessary to catalyze biochemical reactions, including such splicing, but the RNA molecule was doing it by itself. By investigating further, Professor Cech became the first person to show, in 1982, that RNA molecules could act as biocatalysts too. His discovery laid the foundation for advances in molecular genetics and spurred research into RNA’s many roles in biology.

When the Nobel Prize committee awarded him the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside another scientist for his groundbreaking work, it noted that his research had even influenced the understanding of how life on Earth began and developed: “With the discovery of catalytic RNA, it is very possible that RNA molecules were the first biomolecules to contain both genetic information and play a role as biocatalysts.”

More recently, Professor Cech has turned his attention to epigenetics, which is the study of biological mechanisms that turn genes on and off. “Each tissue type has its own epigenetic programme that determines which genes get turned on or off at any moment,” he said. “We have determined in great detail that RNA is a master regulator of this epigenetic silencing, and that in the absence of RNA, this system cannot work. It is critical for life.”

He is also focusing on telomerase, an enzyme linked to cancer. His research group uncovered a catalytic subunit of telomerase called telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) which is now widely agreed to be a major cancer-causing gene, and he has been studying how it works and how it can be targeted to fight cancer. 

Professor Cech is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado. Beyond the Nobel Prize, he has been conferred the National Medal of Science, Heineken Prize, Canada Gairdner International Award, Albert Laser Basic Medical Research Award, Golden Plate Award, Othmer Gold Medal, and many other honours.