Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn Wants You to Think of Your Telomeres

I posted this on my personal blog. It was then picked up by the University of California, Berkeley. E. Blackburn is a contributing author of the Annual Review of Biochemistry and the Annual Review of Genetics. This is a slightly edited version of the original post.

April 2013

Meet Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering a fascinating little fact.

What fact, you ask? Well, she studied telomeres and figured out what they are made of. Telomeres are tiny little caps at the end of chromosomes and their job is to help keep genetic information safe. She also studied telomerase, which is an enzyme that helps rebuild telomeres.

Here’s why you should care: the role of telomeres is to make sure chromosomes stay in good shape. If chromosomes aren’t in good shape, do you know what happens? They get old. That’s rarely good.

Here’s the crazy thing Blackburn is working on at the moment: she has a strong suspicion that the shorter your telomeres, the more likely you are to become sick. So she has spearheaded the creation of a test that measures telomeres to see if certain illnesses could be caught that way.

Many are saying it’s all too vague and needs more research, but Blackburn is adamant that this is the case. Personally I find that this test, in and of itself, is really interesting.

But here’s what I think is super intriguing: she says that your emotional state—read this again: your EMOTIONAL STATE, which is to say your ability to handle your stress (which, by the way, can be acquired)—affects the length of your telomeres. As in, out-of-control stress shortens them.

Do you realise the implications? Blackburn’s research (which she has conducted in recent years with a psychologist, measuring the telomeres of mothers caring for chronically ill children) is basically hard scientific data that tells us we all need to chill out. And if we can’t do it alone, to seek help.

Stress management really is a matter of life or death, turns out.