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Thomas Robert Cech is an American biochemist and molecular biologist who, with Sidney Altman, (Canada/USA) received the 1989 chemistry prize for their discoveries concerning ribonucleic acid (RNA).
Most chemical reactions in the body require a catalyst in the form of an enzyme. Traditionally, enzymes were thought to be proteins, while the nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) were solely responsible for carrying hereditary information. Altman and Cech discovered, however, that RNA can also work as a biocatalyst. Working independently, both men investigated how the genetic code of the DNA was transcribed into RNA. Part of this process involves cutting excess information out of the DNA strands and splicing the useful pieces together.
This process requires catalytic enzymes and in 1978 Altman found that the enzyme was formed from an RNA /protein union. Splitting the two components rendered the enzyme inactive, suggesting the RNA was necessary for a catalytic reaction. Cech was the first person to show that an RNA molecule could catalyze a chemical reaction, publishing his findings in 1982. A year later, Altman clearly demonstrated such enzymatic activity by an RNA molecule.
It is thought RNA enzymes (also called ribozymes) will be used as gene shears to destroy harmful RNA molecules, including viral infections. It has also changed notions of how life on earth developed as it seems likely that RNA molecules were the first biomolecules, containing both the genetic information and acting as biocatalysts.
Thomas Cech was born of Bohemian stock in Chicago, Illinois, in 1947, but grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, where he developed an early interest in natural science – particularly geology. In 1966 he entered Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, where he studied organic chemistry and met his wife, Carol, with whom he has two daughters. He and Carol both gained BAs in 1970 and went on to study chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. Thomas Cech studied under John Hearst, gaining an enthusiasm for chromosome structure. He and Carol both earned their PhDs in 1975 and moved to postdoctoral work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Carol at Harvard and Thomas as a National Cancer Institute fellow at MIT. Both then joined the faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1978.
It was there that Cech made his Nobel Prize discovery in 1982. The following year he was made a full professor. He was also an investigator for the National Institutes of Health from 1978 and for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute from 1988. Cech and his team have received several awards. He joined the US National Academy of Sciences in 1987, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988, and in 1987 was awarded a lifetime Professorship by the American Cancer Society.
This text of the Nobel Laureate was taken from the book: "NOBELS. Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).