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2009 Nobel Prizes in Science

The Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology was awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

Telomeres are small DNA sequences that cap the ends of much larger DNA strands. Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak performed research on these telomeres in the early 80s showing that these telomeres were responsible for protecting chromosomes from degradation* during cell division. Later research performed by Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Grider led to the discovery of the enzyme telomerase, which is responsible for forming these telomeres.

These discoveries are important for a number of reasons. Shortening of these telomeres causes cell aging* and high telomerase activity is linked to the propagation and long life of cancer cells*. Additionally, some inherited diseases, such as aplastic anemia*, have been linked to telomerase defects. It can be seen that the studies of telomeres and the telomerase enzymes is extremely important and the contribution of these scientists is indeed significant.

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The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Charles Kao, William Boyle and George Smith for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication and the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit--the CCD sensor.

Charles Kao began research on light transmission through glass fibers in the mid-60s. At this time light transmission through these fibers was extremely poor. Dr. Kao proposed that the key to increasing light transmission was increasing the chemical purity of the glass through the use of fused silica and quartz. The desired optical fibers were finally produced in the early 70s. This allowed for the development of fiber optic technology* used today for data and light transmission. Currently, fiber optics form the basis for the world's communication network with over 600,000 miles of fiber optic cable run throughout the world.

In 1969 William Boyle and George Smith began developing an idea for a memory device based on the photoelectric effect*. What they eventually invented was the charge-coupled device (CCD)*. This device allowed for light to be transfered to an electric signal, which can then be converted to digital information. This led directly to the creation of the digital camera and a large amount of other useful devices. The technology is used extensively in the field of astronomy and was even used on the Hubble space telescope.

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The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Venkatraman Ramakrishan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.

Ribosomes* in cells are responsible for the synthesis of proteins using messenger RNA as a guide. In the late 70s Ada Yonath began her quest to determine the atomic structure of a ribosome using X-ray crystallography* (made possible by the use of a CCD sensor). However, for X-ray crystallography to work successfully, near perfect crystals must be formed. Ada Yonath accomplished this in the early 1990s after almost 20 years of research. Even after this more information needed to be obtained before the structure could be determined. This key information was obtained by Thomas Stietz using electron microscopy*. In the summer of 2000 Venkatraman Ramakrishan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath were able to completely map out the atomic structure of a ribosome.

This atomic structure is essential to learning how ribosomes function. Specifically, scientists are using this information to determine how ribosomes so efficiently synthesize proteins without error. Additionally, many antibiotics target the ribosomes of bacteria to stop the spread of these bacteria. By determining the structure of the targeted ribosomes scientists can better design new antibiotics that will be more effective.

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