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By: Cindy, Gloria, Joanne | December 8 2009 | Category: Science History, Scientists in the Community


Tom Cech PhotoIn Light of New Evidence...

For years, we taught that “not all proteins are enzymes, but all enzymes are proteins.” By 1989, though, we knew that was wrong, thanks to research by that year’s winners of the Nobel PrizeExternal Web Site Policy in Chemistry.

Thomas R. Cech, born December 8, 1947, and fellow Nobel laureate Sidney Altman discovered that RNA is not just a passive information carrier. It can also catalyze chemical reactions in living cells.

In 1982, Cech’s research group at the University of Colorado, Boulder, showed that an RNA molecule from Tetrahymena, single-celled pond organisms, cut and rejoined chemical bonds in the complete absence of proteins. The discovery of self-splicing RNA was the first evidence against the long-held belief that proteins always catalyze reactions. RNA enzymes, or ribozymes, efficiently cleave -- and thereby destroy -- viral RNAs.
 
As an undergraduate at Grinnell College, Tom Cech became interested in physical chemistry. By the time he left, though, he’d realized that his personality wasn’t suited to physical chemistry research.

He discovered, he says in his autobiographyExternal Web Site Policy for the Nobel Foundation, that “I didn’t have a long enough attention span for the elaborate plumbing and electronics of gas-phase chemical physics.” He was then drawn to biological chemistry because “of the almost daily interplay of experimental design, observation, and interpretation.” As a postdoc at MIT, he strengthened his knowledge of biology and, he says, “enjoyed being part of the interactive science scene” there.
 
As we learn more about the science we study, we often find that we have to change what we hold as truth. We also learn what type of research is most compatible with our personality. We must give ourselves permission to change the text of our lessons and the direction of our studies.

Tom Cech gave himself permission to change his course and became a Noble laureate and, from January 2000 to April 2009, director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
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