Professor Elizabeth H. Blackburn a biologist from the Department
of Biochemistry and Biophysics of the University of California, San Francisco, USA, and
Professor Carol Greider a biologist from the Department of Molecular Biology and
Genetics of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, received the 100,000 euro
Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2009 for their outstanding research
achievements “in the discovery of telomeres and telomerase and the elucidation of their
significance for cell division and cell aging." The decision to confer the award on them was
made by the Board of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation. The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig
Darmstaedter Prize is among the most prestigious international awards granted in the Federal
Republic of Germany in the field of medicine.
Telomeres and telomerase
The ends of chromosomes are protected by so-called telomeres (Greek for “end bodies"),
which form a cap surrounding the end of the chromosomes, rather like the plastic tip on the
end of a shoelace. Each time a healthy cell divides, these telomeres are shortened by a tiny
amount. Once telomere length falls below a certain minimum, the cell ceases to divide or dies.
The enzyme telomerase discovered by Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider can suppress
the shortening of telomeres. After cell division, it adds DNA building blocks to the
chromosome ends and so lengthens the telomeres again. Telomerase thus acts to prevent cell
Demonstrable levels of telomerase are found in the human body only in cells that have to
renew themselves over and over again, such as skin and mucosa cells – and in cancer cells.
The enzyme promotes tumor growth by preventing cell aging and counteracting natural cell
death. Telomerase is therefore a central and crucial point of attack for the development of new
Elizabeth Blackburn, together with her then doctoral student Carol Greider, discovered
telomerase in 1984 in ciliate protozoa of the Tetrahymena species and described it for the first
time in 1985. In the following years, she characterized it genetically and biochemically in
various species, and studied its effects on human health and aging, while Carol Greider
investigated the implications of the malfunction of telomeres and telomerase for genetic
material, the genomic stability of the cell, and the body.
Professor Elizabeth H. Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on November 26, 1948.
She studied biology at the University of Melbourne and took her Ph.D. at the University of
Cambridge in the UK in 1975. She then moved to Yale University in the USA, before joining
the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. She joined the Department of
Microbiology and Immunology of the University of California, San Francisco, in 1990 and is
currently Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the Department of
Biochemistry and Biophysics at that same university. Elizabeth H. Blackburn has received
numerous honors and scientific awards for her work on telomeres and telomerase, including
the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research 2006 (together with Carol Greider) and
the L'Oréal/UNESCO Prize “For Women in Science". Elizabeth H. Blackburn became an
American citizen in 2003 and in 2007 was listed by Time Magazine as one of the “100 Most
Influential People in the World".
Professor Carol Greider, born in San Diego, California, USA, on April 15, 1961, grew up in
Davis, California and studied biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She
made her seminal discovery of telomerase while researching telomeres as a graduate student
with Elizabeth Blackburn at the University of California, Berkeley, where she completed her
Ph.D. in 1987. She has been Daniel Nathans Professor and Director of the Department of
Molecular Biology and Genetics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore since 1993.
She has received numerous honors and scientific awards for her work, including the Albert
Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research 2006 together with Elizabeth Blackburn.