Blackburn Lab Research

The Blackburn lab seeks to understand the full roles of telomeres and telomerase in cell processes.


The research program of the Blackburn laboratory focuses on telomeres, the structures stabilizing the ends of the eukaryotic chromosomes, and the enzyme telomerase. The mechanisms of telomere and telomerase functions, and how perturbations in these functions signal to cells are under study.  We investigate these  in organisms from yeasts to humans, and in cancers.


Work in the Blackburn laboratory concerns the synthesis and function of telomeres, the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes. Telomeric DNA consists of tandem repeats of very simple sequences, one strand of which is synthesized by the ribonucleoprotein enzyme telomerase. Telomerase specifies the sequence of telomeric DNA by using a short sequence within the telomerase RNA moiety as the template for DNA synthesis. Thus, telomeric DNA is unusual in being an essential chromosomal element synthesized by copying an RNA sequence; that is, by a highly specialized, unique reverse transcriptase type of mechanism.

Our goal is to understand the mechanism of telomerase action and its roles in cells. We wish to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the functions of telomerase. One question we address is whether telomerase has additional functions besides polymerizing telomeric DNA. Altering telomere synthesis by various changes in telomerase has led to the finding that cell cycling, growth and division are impaired in different ways. How these responses are signaled from the telomere, or from telomerase, to impact on cell processes is an active area under investigation.

Human beings can have a long life expectancy, but accumulating evidence suggests that insufficient telomere maintenance may limit the extent of healthy life, including increasing the risks and incidences of common chronic diseases that become prevalent as humans age. We are investigating the mechanisms underlying the impact of limited telomere maintenance on human organismic processes. For this research we combine collaborative clinical studies with cell and molecular studies in the lab.