November 30, 2017
LA JOLLA—Elizabeth Blackburn, the Salk Institute’s first female president and one of only 12 women to have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, spoke about her pioneering scientific research on chromosomes—and its implications for aging well—in a TED talk that debuted this week. The talk, which took place in April in Vancouver, Canada, was part of the 2017 TED conference, a weeklong annual event featuring preeminent thinkers and practitioners from around the world exploring the most pressing questions of our time and imagining what our shared future might look like.
In her talk, Blackburn spoke about her research on a tiny freshwater creature named tetrahymena, which she affectionately calls “pond scum.” In studying tetrahymena and, specifically, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes called telomeres that shorten with age, Blackburn discovered something amazing: the telomeres of tetrahymena were being maintained in a way no one had appreciated previously. She explained how her scientific curiosity and investigation into the long-living pond scum sent her on a journey that shed light on one of humanity’s biggest and oldest questions—why and how we age. Her work led to the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the telomere-maintaining enzyme telomerase, for which she shared the Nobel Prize.
Since then, Blackburn and her collaborators have discovered that many factors influence telomere length in humans, for whom telomerase is only active during the earliest stages of cellular development. These factors include genetics, to some degree—but also exercise, diet, stress and attitudes about adversity. So even though telomere shortening is associated with many diseases, things that are within our control can help us maintain our telomeres and thus a longer period of our lives when we are healthy, which she terms “healthspan.”
Prior to her TED talk, Blackburn, along with health psychologist Elissa Epel, wrote about the implications of taking care of our telomeres in the 2015 New York Times bestselling book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Blackburn has received nearly every major award in science, including the Lasker, Gruber and Gairdner prizes. She was named to the TIME 100 in 2007, the magazine’s yearly list of the most influential people in the world, and in 2016 was also chosen by TIME as one of 46 women “who broke ground in their fields” and were “pioneers in history.”
Along with being a champion of women in science throughout her distinguished career, Blackburn has shown an abiding commitment to public service in the scientific, academic and public policy arenas. She has served as president of both the American Association of Cancer Research and the American Society for Cell Biology, as well as serving on the editorial boards of several scientific journals, including Cell and Science. Additionally, she was a member of the Stem Cell Research Advisory Panel for the California State Legislature and a member of the President’s Council of Bioethics, an advisory committee to the President of the United States.
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Every cure has a starting point. The Salk Institute embodies Jonas Salk’s mission to dare to make dreams into reality. Its internationally renowned and award-winning scientists explore the very foundations of life, seeking new understandings in neuroscience, genetics, immunology, plant biology and more. The Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark: small by choice, intimate by nature and fearless in the face of any challenge. Be it cancer or Alzheimer’s, aging or diabetes, Salk is where cures begin.