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1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Tom Cech - The University of Colorado's First Nobel Winner
Tom Cech, a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado and currently president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., became the university’s first Nobel Prize winner in 1989.  He shared the prize in chemistry with Sidney Altman of Yale University for their independent discoveries that RNA can act as a catalyst in cell development.

Cech was cited for his groundbreaking work with ribonucleic acid enzymes, or ribozymes, which is helping scientists better understand the role of RNA in living systems.  The research may pave the way for the use of RNA molecules as therapeutic agents against a variety of human diseases.

Prior to Cech's RNA research in the early 1980s, scientists believed that DNA served as the warehouse of genetic information, RNA decoded the information and proteins used it to create physical attributes such as skin, hair and eyes.  These proteins were thought to be the only catalysts in determining cell development.

 Research conducted by Cech and his CU-Boulder team in the 1980s established that RNA, like a protein, can act as a catalyst in living cells.

“This discovery, which came as a complete surprise to scientists, concerns fundamental aspects of the molecular basis of life,” wrote the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in announcing the work by Cech that led to his Nobel Prize in chemistry.  “Many chapters in our textbooks will have to be revised.”

Subsequent research by Cech and his colleagues -- he was named a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Investigator in 1988 and maintains a campus lab that involves CU-Boulder faculty, students and HHMI researchers -- indicated RNA molecules may have wide potential as therapeutic compounds.  Several years ago Cech's group developed a technique to "address" therapeutic RNA molecules with chemical signals and send them on cellular missions to destroy harmful viruses. 

Cech's work has implications for molecular evolution studies as well.  The discovery that RNA can act both as an information-carrying molecule and as a catalyst hints that RNA may have functioned without DNA or proteins in the earliest period of life on Earth. 

Cech was named winner of the prestigious National Medal of Science in 1995, one of only eight scientists nationwide selected to receive the award that year.  The National Medal of Science is the highest scientific honor bestowed by the president of the United States.  He was named HHMI’s president in January 2000.

Cech came to CU-Boulder in 1978 as an assistant professor of chemistry and in 1983 became a full professor.  He received a bachelor's degree from Grinnell College, Iowa, in 1970 and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cech has been honored with numerous awards during his career, including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry, the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology and the Heineken Prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.  He also is a lifetime research professor of the American Cancer Society.

Cech has retained his Boulder home and also maintains a residence in the Washington, D.C., area while serving as HHMI president.  He travels to Boulder on a regular basis to oversee his laboratory research at CU-Boulder and though rostered at CU-Boulder, Cech is a distinguished professor at both CU-Boulder and the CU Health Sciences Center in Denver.

“I think it is crucial for a leader of a scientific institution to stay in touch with doing real science,” he said.  “It is important to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and important to me personally to continue to interact with students doing quality research and participate in their development as scientists.”


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  Tom Cech
 Tom Cech

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University of Colorado at Boulder Nobel Prize Recipients

The Nobel Prize

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Jim Scott , (303) 492-3114 (CU)

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