Quiet witness to the ticking clock of life

Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres
December 14, 2007

This author knows how to pick a subject. Elizabeth Blackburn is possibly the most distinguished living biologist not to have won a Nobel prize. Her science is about telomeres, bits of your DNA that are central to life and death. She has fought epic battles for truth in the Bush White House. She has risen to the top of US science despite being a woman and an Australian. And she has remained sceptical and detached as others have attempted to make billions from her discoveries.

This is also a rare case where author and subject match as if by careful planning. Blackburn has not got where she is today by shouting. Having been brought up in a minute Tasmanian town aptly called Snug, she is a silent type and has succeeded by effort rather than by office politics. Brady's own style mimics this approach. It varies from the bland to the dull, and it is certainly a crime for a professional writer to claim that "the laboratory building was literally yet another ivory tower within the ivory tower", unless Yale University is built from elephant tusks. But Brady's account of Blackburn's life as a scientist deserves a wide audience. She writes expertly about how research is done and how a research group works.

Blackburn has been lucky in her choices of workplace. She started her research at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, noted for its supportive approach to researchers as well as the quality of its work, and she in turn became a great supporter of rising talent as her career grew.

The three inventors of Blackburn's academic field of telomeres, the end bits of DNA that seem to shorten as cells and organisms age, were all women. But in line with her quietist approach to her work, Blackburn regards her academic persona as "genderless" rather than feminist. It appears that the only time she has sought female advice on her actions was when she became chairman of her department at the University of California, San Francisco. For the first time, this involved her in dealing with roomfuls of men who worried how big their offices were, a challenge she rose to but did not enjoy.

This experience must have been valuable when Blackburn joined the Bush Administration's Bioethics Advisory Council. This part of Brady's account would have made a terrific book in its own right. Blackburn was initially aghast that a gothic horror tale illustrating the perils of messing with nature was circulated to the council as a serious working paper. Her enthusiasm for science and evidence, and her dislike of political belief driving research, led to her being fired.

But Blackburn is no evangelist for biotechnology. She insists that telomeres are not just a ticking clock that tells us when we will die, and she is sceptical about efforts to turn the clock back.

Stress can certainly make some people's cells age faster than others. Perhaps the lesson is that we, like Blackburn, should avoid joining committees, whether of universities or governments, and get on quietly with doing what we are good at if we want to live long and healthy lives.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The Times Higher .

Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA

Author - Catherine Brady
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 424
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9780262026222

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