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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!!!