The work for which they received the award illuminated key aspects of the DNA replication process. As genetic material is copied from the chromosome during cell division, the whole DNA strand must be duplicated from end to end; otherwise, portions of genetic information will be lost. Until the 1980s, it was a mystery as to how the chromosomes could be reliably copied the whole way through without missing bits and pieces at the very end of each strand. Work completed by this year’s laureates demonstrated how, if parts of the end-cap telomeres were missing, DNA would eventually be shortened and cut off in the replication process.
Blackburn and Szostak in 1982 demonstrated that the telomere sequence could be isolated, inserted into another organism and still serve the same function. Working with Blackburn, Greider helped in 1989 to identify the RNA-based telomerase—the enzyme that creates the crucial telomeres. The findings have since been applied in studies of aging, stem cells and cancer.
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