From The New York Times:
The October night before he learned he had won the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine, the biochemical researcher Jack W. Szostak says he slept like a log. “I wasn’t going to lose a night’s sleep because of work I’d done in the 1980s,” Dr. Szostak, 58, said with a laugh during a recent two-hour interview at his laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It was old work.” That “old work,” for which he had already won the Lasker Prize, was to help identify the nature and biochemistry of telomeres, the tips at the ends of chromosomes. Understanding them may be the key to unlocking the mysteries of cancer and cell aging. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Was telomere research your life’s work?
It was somewhat of a side project. Before I began working on telomeres, I’d been studying DNA recombination. What do cells do when they see a broken piece of DNA? Cells don’t like such breaks. They’ll do pretty much anything they can to fix things up. If a chromosome is broken, the cells will repair the break using an intact chromosome. That process is called recombination. And that’s what I was looking at. Now, telomeres: They are the ends of chromosomes, the caps, and they don’t recombine. One day in 1980, I heard Liz [his colleague Elizabeth H. Blackburn] at a conference talking about how telomeres behaved. It was the contrast between the DNA she was working with and the material I was studying that caught my attention. I wanted to understand what was going on. So I wrote Liz right afterward.