Elizabeth Helen Blackburn, AC, FRS,FAA, FRSN (born 26 November 1948) is an Australian–American Nobel laureate who is currently the President of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Previously she was a biological researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who studied the telomere, a structure at the end of chromosomes that protects the chromosome. Blackburn co-discovered telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. For this work, she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, sharing it with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, becoming the only Tasmanian-born Nobel laureate. She also worked in medical ethics, and was controversially dismissed from the Bush Administration’s President’s Council on Bioethics.
Early life and education
Elizabeth Helen Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania on 26 November 1948. Her family moved to the city of Launceston when she was four, where she attended the Broadland House Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (later amalgamated with Launceston Church Grammar School) until the age of sixteen. Upon her family’s relocation to Melbourne, she then attended University High School, and ultimately gained very high marks in the end-of-year final statewide matriculation exams. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in 1970 and Master of Science in 1972, both from the University of Melbourne and her PhD in 1974 from the University of Cambridge on the bacteriophage Phi X 174 while a student of Darwin College, Cambridge. She then carried out postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology between 1975 and 1977 at Yale University.
Work in molecular biology
In 1978, Blackburn joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, in the Department of Molecular Biology. In 1990, she moved across the San Francisco Bay to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she served as the Department Chair from 1993 to 1999. Blackburn is currently the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at UCSF.
Carol had done this experiment, and we stood, just in the lab, and I remember sort of standing there, and she had this we call it a gel. It’s an autoradiogram, because there was trace amounts of radioactivity that were used to develop an image of the separated DNA products of what turned out to be the telomerase enzyme reaction. I don’t remember any details in that area, ‘Ah! This could be very big. This looks just right.’ It had a pattern to it. There was a regularity to it. There was something that was not just sort of garbage there, and that was really kind of coming through, even though we look back at it now, we’d say, technically, there was this, that and the other, but it was a pattern shining through, and it just had this sort of sense, ‘Ah! There’s something real here.’
In recent years Blackburn and her colleagues have been investigating the effect of stress on telomerase and telomeres with particular emphasis on mindfulness meditation. She is also one of several biologists (and one of two Nobel Prize laureates) in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times.
Studies suggest that chronic psychological stress may accelerate aging at the cellular level. Intimate partner violence was found to shorten telomere length in formerly abused women versus never abused women, possibly causing poorer overall health and greater morbidity in abused women.
Blackburn was appointed a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2002. She supported human embryonic cell research, in opposition to the Bush Administration. Her Council terms were terminated by White House directive on 27 February 2004. This was followed by expressions of outrage over her removal by many scientists, who maintained that she was fired because of political opposition to her advice.
“There is a growing sense that scientific researchwhich, after all, is defined by the quest for truthis being manipulated for political ends,” wrote Blackburn. “There is evidence that such manipulation is being achieved through the stacking of the membership of advisory bodies and through the delay and misrepresentation of their reports.”
Blackburn serves on the Science Advisory Board of the Genetics Policy Institute.
Blackburn’s first book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (2017) was co-authored with health psychologist Dr. Elissa Epel of Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions (AME) Center at the UCSF Center for Health and Community. Blackburn comments on aging reversal and care for one’s telomeres through lifestyle: managing chronic stress, exercising, eating better and getting enough sleep; telomere testing, plus cautions and advice.
Awards and honors
- Eli Lilly Research Award for Microbiology and Immunology (1988)
- National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology (1990)
- Harvey Society Lecturer at the Harvey Society in New York (1990)
- Honorary Doctorate of Science from Yale University (1991)
- Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991)
- Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1992
- Fellow of American Academy of Microbiology (1993)
- Foreign Associate of National Academy of Sciences (1993)
- Australia Prize (1998)
- Gairdner Foundation International Award (1998)
- Harvey Prize (1999)
- Keio Medical Science Prize (1999)
- California Scientist of the Year in 1999
- American Association for Cancer Research G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award (2000)
- American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (2000)
- Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000)
- AACR-Pezcoller Foundation International Award for Cancer Research (2001)
- General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Alfred P. Sloan Award (2001)
- E.B.Wilson Award of the American Society for Cell Biology (2001)
- Bristol-Myers Squibb Award (2003)
- Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Foundation Medical Research Award (2003)
- Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine (2004)
- Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science of The Franklin Institute (2005)
- Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2006) (shared with Carol W. Greider and Jack Szostak)
- Genetics Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation (2006)
- Honorary Doctorate of Science from Harvard University (2006)
- Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences from the Wiley Foundation (shared with Carol W. Greider)(2006)
- Fellow of Australian Academy of Science (2007)
- Corresponding Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (2007)*Recipient of the UCSF Women’s Faculty Association Award
- Honorary Doctorate of Science from Princeton University (2007)
- Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University (2007) (shared with Carol W. Greider and Joseph G. Gall)
- Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award (2008)
- L’Oral-UNESCO Award for Women in Science (2008)
- Albany Medical Center Prize (2008)
- Pearl Meister Greengard Prize (2008)
- Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women (2008)
- Mike Hogg Award (2009)
- Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize (2009) (shared with Carol W. Greider)
- The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009, shared with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”
- Companion of the Order of Australia (Australia Day Honours, 2010), for eminent service to science as a leader in the field of biomedical research, particularly through the discovery of telomerase and its role in the development of cancer and ageing of cells and through contributions as an international adviser in Bioethics.
- Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales (FRSN) (2010)
- California Hall of Fame (2011)
- AIC Gold Medal (2012)
- The Royal Medal of the Royal Society (2015).
Blackburn was elected:
- President of the American Association for Cancer Research for the year 2010
- President of the American Society for Cell Biology for the year 1998
- Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1993)
- Member of the Institute of Medicine (2000)
- Board member of the Genetics Society of America (20002002)
Blackburn splits her time living between La Jolla and San Francisco with her husband, John W. Sedat, and has a son, Benjamin.