Dr. Thomas Cech, a chemist from the University of Colorado at Boulder and president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, spoke on “Tricks Performed by RNA – With or Without Proteins” Friday at 4 p.m. in Wege Auditorium.
Cech, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the National Medal of Science, discussed his chief discovery – that ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a single-celled organism called the tetrahymena was able to cut and put back together chemical bonds without using proteins.
He proved that RNA could be a catalyst, not just a carrier of genetic information. It can engage in intermolecular catalysis and in some cases acts as an enzyme.
This discovery has led to many new theories of the foundation of life, which Cech pointed out by placing a sample of RNA in a Campbell’s can on one of his slides, showing it as a part of the “primordial soup.”
Cech has also discovered how RNA catalysts known as ribozymes can inactivate viral RNAs. He has continued his research at Colorado University on the construction of ribozymes and on the telomerase enzyme, which has an effect on the aging process.
Aside from his scientific exploits, Cech, a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, has also published an essay titled “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?” In it, he discusses and compares the benefits of small colleges to those of big, research universities. He argues that small colleges such as Williams have successful science programs because of the caring environment they offer students. “The personal attention given by the professor often leads to an intense and highly focused research experience in a liberal arts college,” he said.