Astrobiology

NASA-Supported Researcher Shares in Nobel Prize
10.05.09
 
Jack W. SzostakJack W. Szostak (Credit: HHMI) Jack W. Szostak, a principal investigator with NASA's Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program and a member of the NASA Astrobiology Insitute, is among a group of three researchers who have been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Szostak shares this year's prestigious scientific award with Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. According to the Royal Swedish Academy, this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the three for solving a major problem in biology: how chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation.

Szostak, primarily a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was presented the award by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Oct. 5, 2009, which was given to the group "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase."

In addition to his work on telomeres, Szostak also made fundamental contributions to the field of astrobiology, a scientific discipline devoted to the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. Much of this work was sponsored by NASA. From 2000-2007, Szostak actively participated in the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), a distributed organization based at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. The NAI was established in 1998 to stimulate and support this new, interdisciplinary field of research and education.

Szostak’s work on the origins of life, and in particular on in vitro evolution of RNA enzymes greatly contributed to the development of the RNA World hypothesis for the emergence of the first catalytic and replicating polymers on the early Earth. As a member of the NAI’s research team at Ames, Szostak pioneered studies on the origin and early evolution of proteins using revolutionary techniques of molecular biology. Currently, most of his research is focused on creating laboratory models of protocells – the first living systems capable of self-reproduction and Darwinian evolution.

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Credit: NASA Astrobiology Institute/HHMI