Dr. Cech was raised and educated in Iowa, earning his B.A. in chemistry from Grinnell College in 1970. He obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and then engaged in postdoctoral research in the department of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1978 he joined the faculty of the University of Colorado Boulder, where he became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 1988 and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1990.
In 1982 Dr. Cech and his research group announced that an RNA molecule from Tetrahymena, a single-celled pond organism, cut and rejoined chemical bonds in the complete absence of proteins. Thus RNA was not restricted to being a passive carrier of genetic information but could have an active role in cellular metabolism. This discovery of self-splicing RNA provided the first exception to the long-held belief that biological reactions are always catalyzed by proteins. In addition, it has been heralded as providing a new, plausible scenario for the origin of life; because RNA can be both an information-carrying molecule and a catalyst, perhaps the first self-reproducing system consisted of RNA alone.
In January 2000, Dr. Cech moved to Maryland as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which is the nation’s largest private biomedical research organization. In addition, HHMI has an $80 million/year grants program that supports science education at all levels (K-12 through medical school) and international research.
In April 2009, Dr. Cech returned to full-time research and teaching at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he also directs the BioFrontiers Institute.
Dr. Cech's work has been recognized by many national and international awards and prizes, including the Heineken Prize of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (1988), the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1988), the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1989), and the National Medal of Science (1995). In 1987 Dr. Cech was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and also awarded a lifetime professorship by the American Cancer Society.