Thomas Cech Biography


Birthday: December 8, 1947 (Sagittarius)

Born In: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Thomas Robert Cech is an American chemist who was jointly awarded the ‘Nobel Prize in Chemistry’ in 1989 along with American molecular biologist Sidney Altman, for his pioneering discovery of the part that ribonucleic acid (RNA), a polymeric molecule, plays as a molecule of hereditary as also of its catalytic properties. He found out that RNA, one of the nucleic acids, has the capacity to cut fine threads of RNA, a finding which displayed that there is a possibility that life was initiated as RNA. His contributing research works also included examination of telomeres, an area of repetitious nucleotide series present at all the ends of a chromosome that shields the chromosome ends from deteriorating and also from synthesizing with other chromosomes. Telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT), a catalytic subunit of the enzyme telomerase, which is part of the procedure to restore telomeres following their reduction at the time of cell division, was discovered in his lab. He received several awards and recognition for his scientific contributions. These included the ‘Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize’ from ‘Columbia University’ and the ‘Heineken Prize’ from the ‘Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences’ in 1988; the ‘National Medal of Science’ from the President of the United States in 1995; and the ‘Othmer Gold Medal’ in 2007 presented together by the ‘Chemical Heritage Foundation’, the ‘American Chemical Society’ (ACS), the ‘Société de Chimie Industrielle’ (American section), ‘The Chemists’ Club’ and the ‘American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE).
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Thomas Robert Cech, Tom Cech

Age: 76 Years, 76 Year Old Males


Spouse/Ex-: Carol Lynn Martinson

siblings: Richard and Barbara

children: Allison, Jennifer

Chemists American Men

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Chemistry

City: Chicago, Illinois

U.S. State: Illinois

More Facts

education: Grinnell College, University of California, Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

awards: Newcomb Cleveland Prize (1986)
NAS Award in Molecular Biology (1987)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1989)

National Medal of Science (1995)
Othmer Gold Medal (2007)

Childhood & Early Life
He was born on December 8, 1947, in Chicago to a physician father and a homemaker mother, both of whom were of Czech origin. He was brought up in Iowa City, Iowa, along with his two siblings, Richard and Barbara.
Although a physician, his father’s love for physics besides medicine introduced a scientific viewpoint invariably in most of their conversations that probably infused an interest on science in Cech from an early age. By the time he was in fourth grade, he started collecting minerals and rocks that made him curious about the way these were formed.
His curiosity increased with time and by the time he started studying in junior high school, he would knock the doors of Geology professors at the ‘University of Iowa’ and request them to show models of crystal structures and discuss about fossils, meteorites and crystal structures.
He joined a private liberal arts college, the ‘Grinnell College’ in Grinnell, Iowa in 1966. There he studied ‘Odyssey, one of two main ancient Greek epic poems by Homer; ‘Inferno’, the first part of the 14th-century epic poem ‘Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri; Chemistry and Constitutional History.
In 1970 he completed his graduation with a B.A.
Thereafter he joined the ‘University of California’ in Berkeley to pursue his postgraduate doctoral studies. He obtained his PhD in 1975 under the guidance of his thesis advisor John Hearst. The same year he joined ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology’ (MIT), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began working on his postdoctoral research. There he had the opportunity to work in the laboratory of renowned American geneticist Mary Lou Pardue in the Department of Biology of the institute.
Continue Reading Below
He joined the ‘University of Colorado Boulder’ (also referred as ‘UCB’, ‘CU, Boulder’ and ‘CU-Boulder’) in 1978 in a faculty position and taught chemistry and biochemistry to undergraduate students. Since 1990 till present he serves the university as Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
The primary research area of Cech has been the method of transcription, the very first step of gene expression, in nucleus of cells, where the enzyme RNA polymerase copies a specific segment of DNA, a molecule that carries much of the genetic instructions, into the RNA (mRNA).
During the 1970s he was examining RNA splicing of Tetrahymena thermophila, a unicellular pond organism, and found that an RNA molecule which is unprocessed can splice itself.
In 1982 he and his research team were the first to declare that in absence of proteins an RNA molecule of Tetrahymena thermophila can cut and rejoin chemical bonds. Thus they became the first to show that RNA is not only a passive carrier of genetic data but they can have catalytic functions and can take part in reactions of cells.
This finding of self-splicing RNA by Cech changed the earlier perception that proteins only function as catalysts in biological reactions.
His second area of research is the telomerase, an enzyme in a eukaryote, which mends the telomeres of the chromosomes thus preventing them to become progressively shorter at the time of successive rounds of chromosome replication. His laboratory discovered telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT), a catalytic sub-unit of the telomerase enzyme, which is part of the procedure to restore telomeres following their reduction during cell division.
In 1987, the ‘National Academy of Sciences’ of the United States elected him as a member based on his notable as also continuing accomplishments in original research and the ‘American Cancer Society’ conferred him a lifetime Professorship. That year he was also conferred an honorary D.Sc. degree by the ‘Grinnell College’.
The prestigious ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ elected him a member in 1988.
In 1991 the ‘University of Chicago’ bestowed upon him an honorary D.Sc.
He became the President of a non-profit medical research organization of the US, the ‘Howard Hughes Medical Institute’ (‘HHMI’) based in Chevy Chase, Maryland in 2000 succeeding Purnell Choppin. He along with ‘HHMI’ strongly supported for ‘UVM’ and aided financially by providing millions of dollars for UVM researchers and also aided in establishing the College of Medicine's program and the undergraduate science education HELiX program. However on April 1, 2008, he declared that he will give up the post of President to resume research work and teaching from the spring of 2009.
He formed and remains the head of the ‘Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology’ (‘CIMB’), a biochemistry laboratory at the ‘University of Colorado’. The ‘CIBM’ encourages medical researchers, chemists, molecular and cellular biologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers to come together to make discoveries resulting in new diagnostics and therapeutics. He is a member of the ‘University of Colorado Cancer Center’. He also teaches undergraduate chemistry as a faculty member of the university.
He still continues his research work on telomerase and structure of ribozyme in his laboratory at the ‘University of Colorado Boulder’. Since 2009 till present he is the Director of the ‘BioFrontiers Institute’ and Investigator at the ‘Howard Hughes Medical Institute’.
Major Works
His pioneering discovery of catalytic RNA changed the earlier tenets of biosciences and researchers who perceived RNA of living cells to be passive became aware that RNA can behave as an enzyme and work as a catalyst. These findings have provided a new device in the technology of genes and also led to the revision of chemistry and biology textbooks. The RNA enzymes also have the ability to provide new therapeutic agents.
The discovery of telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) is aiding scientists in comprehending the behaviour of HIV in a better way.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Carol Lynn Martinson, his lab partner of organic chemistry from his graduating years, in 1970. Thereafter they both joined the ‘University of California’ to pursue their PhD and obtained it in 1975.
The couple is blessed with two daughters Allison, born in 1982 and Jennifer born in 1986.

See the events in life of Thomas Cech in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Thomas Cech Biography
- Editors,

People Also Viewed

Percy Lavon Julian Biography
Percy Lavon Julian
Jerome Karle Biography
Jerome Karle
Gertrude B. Elion Biography
Gertrude B. Elion
James B. Sumner Biography
James B. Sumner
Elias James Corey Biography
Elias James Corey