UCSF’s Blackburn Inducted into the California Hall of Fame

By Jennifer O'Brien | December 12, 2011

UCSF’s Blackburn Inducted into the California Hall of Fame

Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, Morris Herztein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF, addresses the audience after being into the California Hall of Fame on Dec. 8.

Resplendent in an elegant striped jacket of blue and green hues, Blackburn, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009, was presented with the medal by from Governor Jerry Brown. She was in eclectic company.

Her fellow inductees included astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the Beach Boys, the community activist Reverend Gregory Boyle, philanthropists and Gap store founders Doris and the late Donald Fisher, basketball legend Magic Johnson, the late disability rights advocate Ed Roberts, rock guitarist Carlos Santana, novelist Amy Tan, and the late California Supreme Court Justice Roger Traynor.

“This is quite a group of fellow Californians,” said Blackburn, who was introduced by Aldrin, the pilot of the first manned lunar landing in history and the second person to set foot on the moon. “I greatly appreciate being recognized in the company of such creative, dynamic people. They exemplify the wonderful and varied talent of our state. It is a place like no other. When in California, there is a sense of the possible.”

The Hall of Fame recognizes legendary Californians who have influenced the state, the nation and the world. It is part of the California Museum of Science, whose mission is to “engage, educate and enlighten people about California’s rich history and its unique contribution to the world through ideas, innovation, art and culture.”

While Magic was dazzling on the basketball court and the Beach Boys were inspiring with their melodies, Blackburn was studying a single-celled organism known as Tetrahymena, also known as pond scum. In 1985, she and her then post-doctoral fellow Carol Greider, PhD, a Nobel laureate, discovered that the organism was using a novel enzyme, which they named telomerase, to grow and shrink and then grow again.

The team determined that the enzyme adds tiny units of DNA to the tips of chromosomes, which are sealed by protective DNA caps known as telomeres. All humans have the telomerase enzyme in their cells, and scientists have learned that, in replenishing telomeres, the enzyme plays a key role in controlling cell aging and cancers.

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