Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Blackburn
With AIC Gold Medal, 2012
Born Elizabeth Helen Blackburn
(1948-11-26) 26 November 1948
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Residence US
Citizenship Australian and American
Alma mater
Scientific career
Fields Molecular biology
Thesis Sequence studies on bacteriophage ØX174 DNA by transcription (1974)
Doctoral advisor Frederick Sanger[2]
Doctoral students Carol W. Greider
Website biochemistry2.ucsf.edu/labs/blackburn

Elizabeth Helen Blackburn, AC FRS FAA FRSN[1] (born 26 November 1948) is an Australian-American Nobel laureate who is currently the President of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.[3] Previously she was a biological researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who studied the telomere, a structure at the end of chromosomes that protects the chromosome. Blackburn co-discovered telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. For this work, she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, sharing it with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, becoming the only Tasmanian-born Nobel laureate. She also worked in medical ethics, and was controversially dismissed from the Bush Administration's President's Council on Bioethics.[4]

Early life and education

Elizabeth Helen Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania on 26 November 1948. Her family moved to the city of Launceston when she was four, where she attended the Broadland House Church of England Girls' Grammar School (later amalgamated with Launceston Church Grammar School) until the age of sixteen. Upon her family's relocation to Melbourne, she attended University High School, and ultimately gained very high marks in the end-of-year final statewide matriculation exams.[5] She went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in 1970 and Master of Science in 1972, both from the University of Melbourne in the field of biochemistry, and her PhD in 1975 from the University of Cambridge in molecular biology[6] on the bacteriophage Phi X 174 while a student of Darwin College, Cambridge. She undertook postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology between 1975 and 1977 at Yale University.[7]


In 1978, Blackburn joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, in the Department of Molecular Biology. In 1990, she moved across the San Francisco Bay to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she served as the Department Chair from 1993 to 1999 and was the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at UCSF. Blackburn became a Professor Emeritus at UCSF at the end of 2015.[8][9]

Blackburn, co-founded the company Telomere Health which offers telomere length testing to the public, but later severed ties with the company.[10][11]

On January 1, 2016, she was made president of the Salk Institute. In December 2017, she announced her plan to retire the following summer.[12]


Blackburn co-discovered telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. Blackburn recalls:[13]

Carol had done this experiment, and we stood, just in the lab, and I remember sort of standing there, and she had this – we call it a gel. It's an autoradiogram, because there was trace amounts of radioactivity that were used to develop an image of the separated DNA products of what turned out to be the telomerase enzyme reaction. I remember looking at it and just thinking, 'Ah! This could be very big. This looks just right.' It had a pattern to it. There was a regularity to it. There was something that was not just sort of garbage there, and that was really kind of coming through, even though we look back at it now, we'd say, technically, there was this, that and the other, but it was a pattern shining through, and it just had this sort of sense, 'Ah! There's something real here.' But then of course, the good scientist has to be very skeptical and immediately say, 'Okay, we're going to test this every way around here, and really nail this one way or the other.' If it's going to be true, you have to make sure that it's true, because you can get a lot of false leads, especially if you're wanting something to work.

For this work, she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, sharing it with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak.

In recent years Blackburn and her colleagues have been investigating the effect of stress on telomerase and telomeres[14] with particular emphasis on mindfulness meditation.[15][16] She is also one of several biologists (and one of two Nobel Prize laureates) in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times.

Studies suggest that chronic psychological stress may accelerate aging at the cellular level. Intimate partner violence was found to shorten telomere length in formerly abused women versus never abused women, possibly causing poorer overall health and greater morbidity in abused women.[17]


Blackburn was appointed a member of the President's Council on Bioethics in 2002. She supported human embryonic cell research, in opposition to the Bush Administration. Her Council terms were terminated by White House directive on 27 February 2004.[18] This was followed by expressions of outrage over her removal by many scientists, who maintained that she was fired because of political opposition to her advice.[19]

"There is a growing sense that scientific research—which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth—is being manipulated for political ends," wrote Blackburn. "There is evidence that such manipulation is being achieved through the stacking of the membership of advisory bodies and through the delay and misrepresentation of their reports."[20][21]

Blackburn serves on the Science Advisory Board of the Regenerative Medicine Foundation formerly known as the Genetics Policy Institute.[22]


Blackburn's first book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (2017) was co-authored with health psychologist Dr. Elissa Epel of Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions (AME) Center at the UCSF Center for Health and Community.[23] Blackburn comments on aging reversal and care for one's telomeres through lifestyle: managing chronic stress, exercising, eating better and getting enough sleep; telomere testing, plus cautions and advice.[24]

Awards and honors

Blackburn was elected:

In 2007, Blackburn was listed among Time Magazine's The TIME 100—The People Who Shape Our World.[37]

Personal life

Blackburn splits her time living between La Jolla and San Francisco with her husband, John W. Sedat, and has a son, Benjamin.[38]


  1. 1 2 3 "Fellows of the Royal Society". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-03-16.
  2. "Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  3. "Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn named Salk Institute President". Retrieved 2016-01-24.
  4. Brady, Catherine (2007). Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-02622-2.
  5. Brady 2007, pp. 1–13
  6. Blackburn, Elizabeth Helen (1974). Sequence studies on bacteriophage ØX174 DNA by transcription. lib.cam.ac.uk (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. EThOS uk.bl.ethos.449954.
  7. "Elizabeth Blackburn Profile at UCSF". Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  8. "UCSF Profiles: Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD". ucsf.edu. The Regents of the University of California. 2018. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  9. Madhusoodanan, Jyoti (18 November 2015). "Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn Named President of Salk Institute". Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  10. Marchant, Jo (2011). "Spit test offers guide to health". Nature. doi:10.1038/news.2011.330.
  11. Yasmin, Seema (November 2016). "$89 test kit claims to determine how well your cells are aging. Does it work?". Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  12. "Nobel laureate will step down from leading embattled Salk Institute". Science | AAAS. 21 December 2017.
  13. "Elizabeth Blackburn Interview (by Carol Greider page: 2 / 8) Nobel Prize in Medicine". American Academy of Achievement. 17 November 2009. Archived from the original on 27 July 2012. Retrieved 31 July 2012.
  14. Epel ES, Lin J, Dhabhar FS, Wolkowitz OM, Puterman E, Karan L, Blackburn EH (2010). "Dynamics of telomerase activity in response to acute psychological stress". Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 24 (4): 531–539. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2009.11.018. PMC 2856774. PMID 20018236.
  15. Jacobs TL, Epel ES, Lin J, Blackburn EH, Wolkowitz OM, Bridwell DA, Zanesco AP, Aichele SR, Sahdra BK, Maclean KA, King BG, Shaver PR, Rosenberg EL, Ferrer E, Wallace BA, Saron CD (2010). "Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators". Psychoneuroendocrinology. 36 (5): 664–681. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010. PMID 21035949.
  16. Elissa Epel; Jennifer Daubenmier; Judith Tedlie Moskowitz; Susan Folkman; Elizabeth Blackburn (2009). "Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1172 (1): 34–53. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x. PMC 3057175. PMID 19735238.
  17. Janice Humphreys; Elissa S. Epel; Bruce A. Cooper; Jue Lin; Elizabeth H. Blackburn; Kathryn A. Lee (2012). "Telomere Shortening in Formerly Abused and Never Abused Women". Biological Research for Nursing. 14 (2): 115–123. doi:10.1177/1099800411398479. PMC 3207021.
  18. Blackburn, E. & Rowley, J. (2004). "Reason as Our Guide". PLoS Biology. 2 (4): e116. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020116. PMC 359389. PMID 15024408.
  19. "Scientists rally around stem cell advocate fired by Bush". USA Today. Associated Press. 19 March 2004. Retrieved 2008-05-30.
  20. Bioethics and the Political Distortion of Biomedical Science Elizabeth Blackburn, N Engl J Med 350:1379–1380 (1 April 2004)
  21. A Nobel prize for a Bush critic By Andrew Leonard, Salon.com, 5 October 2009 Free text. Extensive quotation from Blackburn's article.She is an important scientist throughout the world.
  22. "Science Advisory Board". http://genpol.org/about-the-genetics-policy-institute/. Regenerative Medicine Foundation. 2018. Retrieved 11 June 2018. External link in |website= (help)
  23. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Dr. Elissa Epel (2017). The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. Grand Central Publishing. p. 416. ISBN 9781455587971.(at Amazon.com)
  24. Corbyn, Zoë (January 29, 2017). "Elizabeth Blackburn on the telomere effect: 'It's about keeping healthier for longer'". The Guardian. Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  25. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 10 April 2011.
  26. "List of Fellows of the Royal Society 1660 – 2007" (PDF). Royal Society Library & Information Services. July 2007. Retrieved 31 July 2012.
  27. http://www.nasonline.org, National Academy of Sciences -. "Elizabeth Blackburn". www.nasonline.org.
  28. "Nine receive honorary degrees from Harvard". Harvard University Gazette. Archived from the original on 2006-10-12.
  29. "Pearl Meister Greengard Prize – An International Award Recognizing Outstanding Women in Biomedical Research". The Rockefeller University. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  30. "Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak share Nobel". Dolan DNA Learning Center. Archived from the original on 22 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  31. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009". The Nobel Foundation. 5 October 2009. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  32. "It's an Honour". Itsanhonour.gov.au. 26 January 2010. Retrieved 2011-09-28.
  33. "Fellows of RSNSW". RSNSW. Retrieved 25 June 2012.
  34. "American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal". Science History Institute. March 22, 2018.
  35. "Royal Medal". Royal Society. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
  36. "Officers of the AACR". Aacr.org. Archived from the original on 30 September 2011. Retrieved 28 September 2011.
  37. Alice Park (3 May 2007). "The Time 100: Elizabeth Blackburn". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2008-05-30.
  38. UCSF's Elizabeth Blackburn Receives Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, By Jennifer O'Brien. Press release.
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