At the 140th annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences held last week in Washington, D.C., one Johns Hopkins geneticist was elected to membership and another, elected last year, was inducted as a member. The academy, an honorary society that advises the government on scientific matters, currently includes 16 Johns Hopkins faculty members.
National Academy members this year elected Carol Greider, professor and interim director of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the School of Medicine, to membership. In an awards ceremony, Greider received the academy's Richard Lounsbery Award, which includes a medal and a cash prize, in recognition of "her pioneering biochemical and genetic studies of telomerase," the enzyme that maintains the ends of chromosomes.
Greider's career has focused on investigating basic biological questions whose answers have turned out to have dramatic implications for disease research. Her first research question--how chromosomes are copied in a single-celled pond-dwelling critter (Tetrahymena)--led to her discovery of telomerase as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in 1984.
Until then, the existence of telomerase had been only speculative, but now scientists know the enzyme is found in all organisms with "linear" chromosomes, from Tetrahymena to humans. It's now well-known that normal cells stop dividing when their chromosome ends, called telomeres, get too short and that cancer cells can divide indefinitely in part because they turn on telomerase to keep the ends intact.
"At the time, we didn't expect that telomerase would have all these implications or applications. Our initial discovery was driven by basic curiosity," Greider said. "Research into fundamental questions of biology first advances our basic understanding of how things work, but somewhere down the road there is almost always an important health- or disease-related implication. Basic research is vitally important."
Greider received her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Barbara and her doctorate in molecular biology from Berkeley in 1987. She then was a fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and attained full investigator status there before joining Johns Hopkins in July 1997. Greider continues to investigate the fundamental biology of telomerase and the role of telomere length in cancer cells.
Philip Beachy, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was inducted into the academy. Beachy has spent his career studying the "hedgehog" gene and protein, work that has advanced understanding of embryo development, cell differentiation and cancer development.
For more about Carol Greider's work, go to www.hopkinsmedicine.org/hmn/W01/top.html.