Thomas R. Cech, Nobel laureate and president of HHMI, will deliver a public talk on "RNA Enzymes and the Origins of Life" at the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, VA.

Thomas R. Cech, Nobel laureate and president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), will deliver a public talk on “RNA Enzymes and the Origins of Life” at the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, VA.

Cech will deliver the talk on Wednesday, September 17, 2008, at 7 PM. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required for admission. Directions for obtaining the tickets are available on the Janelia website. Seating is limited to 250 people.

The talk is the third in a series called “Dialogues of Discovery at Janelia Farm.” Past speakers in the twice-yearly series are Huda Zoghbi, an HHMI investigator at Baylor College of Medicine, and Charles Zuker, an HHMI investigator at the University of California, San Diego.

For decades, scientists believed that proteins did all of the cell's heavy lifting, orchestrating the thousands of chemical reactions that help it live, grow, and respond to its environment. But in 1982, Cech toppled that tenet of biology. Cech showed that RNA, or ribonucleic acid, could act as a catalyst, sparking some of the biochemical reactions that power the cell—in addition to being a carrier of hereditary information. In those studies, Cech and his colleagues demonstrated that RNA is more than a biological middleman.

In recent years, RNA research has revealed increasingly broad roles for RNA. RNA enzymes busily catalyze a variety of reactions inside cells; other types of RNA exert control over gene expression. RNA's ability to both store genetic information and catalyze biochemical reactions has led many scientists to suspect that it may have had a central role in the origin of life. It is plausible that early forms of life relied solely on RNA to carry out their essential functions, and only later did organisms evolve to depend on proteins and DNA as they do now.

Cech's work has been recognized by many national and international awards and prizes, including the Heineken Prize of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the National Medal of Science, and the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1987.

Cech earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He has been an HHMI investigator since 1988. In January 2000, he was named president of the Institute, and his tenure as president has been marked by innovation and significant programmatic expansion. Cech has continued his research on RNA enzymes in his University of Colorado lab throughout his years as president of HHMI.

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