Meet telomerase, the enzyme that won a Nobel Prize

Written by: Captain Skellett // February 18th, 2010 // Recent Research

As a pirate I am rarely afforded the luxury of meeting the rich and famous, but today I met Elizabeth Blackburn. She was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, making her the first first FEMALE Australian born scientist to win a Nobel Prize. (I also met the PM and Senator Kim Carr, just to round out my VIP day.)

Sadly the story didn’t make the news on TV… further evidence that science just doesn’t rate to the media.

Well, it rates to ME. So I’m dedicating this post to the research that nabbed the Nobel Prize, the discovery of telomerase, builder of telomeres, protector of chromosomes.

WTF is a telomere? Inside your cell you have 46 chromosomes, long strands of DNA that have ends. Chromosomes have telomeres for the same reason we shipfolk dip the ends of rope in wax – so the ends don’t fray. Instead of wax, we have the same sequence of DNA bases (TTAGGG) that repeat over and over and wrap around some special proteins to make a nice neat little end.

When it comes to that special time in a cells life when the mommy cell loves itself very much, it needs to make a copy of all its DNA so it can split into two new cells. Because of how the machinery works it needs some DNA at to hold onto before it can start copying, which means some DNA at each end is lost every time the cell splits. That’s another good reason to have telomeres, you can lose a bit of them each time and it doesn’t hurt your genes.

However you’ve only got a certain amount of telomeres, and once they run out two things can happen. One: the cell stops dividing. Two: Something bad.

Something bad is that the cell, keeps dividing and starts cutting into the rest of its DNA. Suddenly you have lose ends of DNA whipping around the cell like untied ropes in a storm. The cell freaks out and thinks “eep, my DNA strand has been cut! Must sew it back together!” and then attaches one end to another end, probably to another chromosome altogether. That’s actually okay, until it comes time to divide again. The chromosomes need to separate so they can go into the daughter cells, and oh noes they are attached to each other! Solution? Rip them apart, then sew two bits back together… somewhere… Oh dear…

Soon you have DNA that has been stitched together a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Most of the cells will die (for obvious reasons), but some will survive, will become stronger, better, faster than before, will become the cancer.

So telomeres protect your cells, but usually run out over the life of the cell. Fortunately there’s an enzyme that makes more of those TTAGGG repeats, so you have more telomeres! That’s what Elizabeth Blackburn helped discover – the superdooper trooper enzyme TELOMERASE.

Most of your cells don’t make telomerase, but stem cells do – that’s why they can survive for your whole life. Having an active version of telomerase can help protect against that split/stitch cycle and prevent cancer forming… mice often have more telomerase in their cells, and longer telomeres – as a result they get different kinds of cancers to us.

Pretty nifty enzyme, hey. Don’t know why the media wouldn’t be interested in that… you know, protects against cancer, important part of stem cells… no, don’t put THAT on the news. Let’s have some hardcore sport and a weather feature or two. GORDAMMIT!!!

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google


20 Responses to “Meet telomerase, the enzyme that won a Nobel Prize”

  1. Sanger says:

    The first Australian born Nobel winner? What about Barry Marshall – he was born in Kalgoorlie. Which is sort of like another country (another world, really), but technically counts.

    Our Liz is, however, the first female Australian Nobel winner.

    I stand corrected, Barry Marshall was indeed born in Aus. Thanks Sanger!

    Sanger Reply:

    I think I have a slight man-crush on Barry, to be honest. Or is it a nerd-crush? Is there such a thing?

    Yep, I believe in the nerd-crush. He’s a good choice in that department, I should do a post about him sometime (if only for the brain candy)

    Spanks Reply:

    @Sanger, You are both totally forgetting Robin Warren, born in Adelaide, received the Nobel Prize alongside with Barry Marshall (but everyone forgets his name) geez Sanger i thought you be on top of ths one.. do your research next time >.<

    Sanger Reply:

    I’m aware of Robin. He may have been instrumental in the research, but he sure didn’t drink from a petri dish and give himself stomach ulcers to prove it.

  2. Murfomurf says:

    Yayy!! Elizabeth Blackburn! A very noble Nobel winner! It stinks that there wasn’t a big fanfare on the news and current affairs programs- I think it’s because there’s no one with enough clout working in the on-screen media who knows the meaning of her sort of discovery. We need a new, younger (sorry mate) Norman Swann or Robin Williams and we need to have more status for science. Perhaps the new science media statement thingy “Inspiring Australia: A National Strategy for Engagement with the Sciences” [], might help, if only we could have a short version for the time-poor!
    SRSLY- ordinary humans think all scientists are mad, wear white coats, are male, LIVE in laboratories and can’t understand the real world and say “how would THEY know- they’re ONLY scientists”. It’s p**ed me off for about 45 years and doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon!

  3. Captain Kangaroo says:

    “Don’t know why the media wouldn’t be interested in that… you know, protects against cancer, important part of stem cells…”

    I know why… Because the media doesn’t really want to educate the public something BENEFICIAL but instead focuses on fear, tragedy, pain, etc followed by entertainment. You know, problems sell better then the solutions – human brain works this way.
    Telomerase is a great example. Most people wouldn’t know what it is if their life depended on it but sadly, it is dependent on it.

    After I read your article I went to Google and searched for telomerase enzyme and there are some interesting things written about it. FOr instance here:

    They say it’s not telomerese that is really responsible for cell division but the telomeres, the strands on the DNA. They get shorter from the cells constantly dividing and hence after they get too short the aging comes because the cells can’t divide any longer. And here where the telomerase enzyme comes in and makes telomere strands longer. Ta-da! Immortality! Sort of, in theory… lol

    Arrr, a fellow Captain! Indeed that be the theory of how telomerase works, ye have hit the nail on the head! Immortality for all, one day, perhaps… though it seems that cancers have harnessed the immortality aspect for EVIL, so perhaps we should regard it with caution.

    Captain Kangaroo Reply:

    I read somewhere Geron Corporation stated a few years ago that even though cancerous cells use/express telomerase enzyme for their own benefit, the same telomerase enzyme they’re expressing helps the body’s own defense system by allowing the damaged cells surrounding the cancerous tumor the ability to repair themselves.

    To me it means if a person has cancer, telomerase enzyme in the supplement will not aggravate the condition or make it worse.

    I guess with cancers it’s about finding that balance between killing the cancer before you kill the surrounding cells. Interesting comment, I’ll have to look into that.

  4. Roger Charlesworth says:

    I am still concerned about the cancer aspect of all this. I hear that the best way to deal with cancer is to INHIBIT telomerase production. Do we REALLY know enough about this subject to fully endorse telomerase for everyone, or are we just playing Russian Roulette?

  5. Dr. DeWees says:

    Where can we get this supplement? I would like to add it to what I recommend to my patients. Nice blog.

    Dr. D.

    Umm, a telomerase supplement? I don’t think they exist.

    ramdael Reply:

    please let me knowwhere we can buy this supp in Austraia

    Buy what? I don’t think it exists in a therapeutic form for humans yet!

    Okay, I see where you’re getting the supplement business. From that curebum link posted by Captain Kangaroo.

    Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to buy random supplements until they appear in a pharmacy, but that’s me. Can’t help you!

    @Dr. DeWees,
    Telomerase enzymes get shortened when your body is in a high state of oxidative stress, i.e. when Free Radical build up is high. So use abundatly good antioxidants and avoid Refined Carbs, Fried and Fatty products, exercise aerobic at least 3-4 times a week, and give fasting for 12 hours at night for 3-4 days a week. This will enhance and improve the quality of Telomerase enzymes.

  6. Blossom says:

    Umm pardon me but Telomerase Does exist
    It’s available from Dr Do a search
    on the net. I’ve cheked it out (It is hellishly

    Yeah, you’re right, my bad. Thanks for the link Blossom.

    I word of caution to those seeking to prolong life with such stuff. I don’t know a lot about online supplements, except that they’re often snake oil, spam-tastic and expensive. I’m saving my booty for… I don’t know actually… wenches I suppose. Should probably work out a budget.

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