Thomas R. Cech, PhD

Thomas R. Cech, PhD
​Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Director, BioFrontiers Institute, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado

Thomas R. Cech, PhD | Class of 2016

A Nobel laureate celebrated for his contributions to the discoveries of the catalytic properties of RNA and of the catalytic subunit of telomerase, telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT). Dr. Cech demonstrated that RNA is able to function as a catalytic molecule capable of forming complex molecular structures. This work proved to be paradigm-shifting and a revision of the idea that only proteins could serve this function. Dr. Cech and his colleagues labeled such RNA molecules, which they initially isolated from the single-cell organism Tetrahymena, "ribozymes." This work would subsequently pave the way for the study of RNA molecules as regulators of cellular processes and as potential therapeutic agents for numerous diseases. 

The discovery of TERT by Dr. Cech's group has provided an important molecular target for development of anti-cancer therapeutics. Studies of TERT have defined the enzyme's main function of catalyzing the addition of nucleotides onto the ends of chromosomes during DNA replication to maintain genomic integrity and prevent chromosomal degradation. Understanding the functions of this enzyme and its partners within the telomerase complex has been essential to understanding the mechanisms by which cells avoid death and become tumorigenic.

Dr. Cech's ongoing research aims to expand on his prior discoveries and includes understanding the structure and function of telomeres as well as the DNA and protein complexes that commonly interact with telomeric DNA.

Career Highlights

​2009  Lifetime Achievement Award, Colorado Bioscience Association
2009  Lifetime Achievement Award, RNA Society
2007  Othmer Gold Medal, Chemical Heritage Foundation
2002  Gregor Mendel Medal, Czech Academy of Sciences
2000  Elected Member, Institute of Medicine
1995  National Medal of Science, National Science Foundation
1990  Bonfils-Stanton Award for Science, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation
1989  Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1988  Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University
1988  Elected Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1988  Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, Amsterdam
1988  Newcombe-Cleveland Award, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1988  Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award
1987  Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC
1975  PhD, University of California, Berkeley