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Memorial Lecture Series
  April 2, 2003

Nobel Laureate Thomas Cech
"From Catalytic RNA to Howard Hughes"

 
Nobel Laureate Thomas Cech
President, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Distinguished Professor, University of Colorado

In 1978 I arrived in Boulder to take up my first faculty position, in the Department of Chemistry at CU. The main attractants were a smart, friendly group of colleagues who were intent on propelling the department into national prominence, and the breathtaking mountain environment. I began to teach undergraduates, both in the classroom and in my laboratory, obtained federal funding for my research, and began to explore the expression of an abundant set of genes in a simple pond organism, Tetrahymena.

I chose to launch a research project distinct from my postdoctoral work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because I thought this unlikely creature might provide special insights on molecular biology: the way that genetic information is copied from DNA into RNA. I was not disappointed. My group of students and I watched the RNA being synthesized in the test tube, and also spliced - an intervening sequencer or "intron" removed and the flanking RNA sequenced ligated together. The mechanism of the RNA splicing was intriguing, the protein enzyme that catalyzed the process being exceptionally elusive. Eventually, we showed that there was no protein enzyme. The RNA spliced itself, providing the first example of a biochemical reaction catalyzed by RNA.

Unknown to me, the scientific world had been waiting for this discovery. If RNA could provide both heritable "information" and catalytic function, then one could envision a vastly simplified scenario for the origins of life based on RNA, replicating itself. Furthermore, perhaps the roles of RNA in contemporary biology had been underestimated? And indeed, research groups around the world reported first a few other examples of catalytic RNA, then dozens, and then many hundreds.

An opportunity to make an impact at a national and international level came with the offer to head the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1999. The Institute, founded by the aviator-industrialist Howard Hughes in 1953, became the recipient of much of the Hughes fortune. Well before my time, the Institute had earned the reputation for supporting the highest quality biomedical research and innovative science education. I now work at HHMI headquarters in the Washington D.C. area and commute to Boulder to oversee my research group. While this may seem like an enormous change, I've been able to continue two of the same activities I began in 1978 - working to improve undergraduate education and carrying out RNA research.