Titia de Lange
The Rockefeller University
2013 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer.
DNA is a very long and complex molecule, with two strands bound together in a winding spiral. Proteins within the cell diligently repair any break in this closed structure. For this reason, the strands must be “tied up” at the ends; otherwise proteins would constantly try to “repair” the loose ends by adding genetic material, with disastrous results. Titia de Lange has devoted her career to exploring telomeres — the molecular caps that close off the two strands. She has mapped the complex of molecules that loops the strands together and protects them. In addition to making headway in revealing the structure of DNA, her research has implications for the understanding of aging and cancer.
My style of research was shaped by three mentors. Richard Flavell was the first to show me the joy of doing molecular biology, and his vibrant international lab taught me how to be experimentally fearless, think big, work hard, and have fun at the same time. Piet Borst taught me how to do the perfect experiment that nails the result and leaves no ambiguity. Piet also taught me how to look for the story buried under the mud of my results. At UCSF, in the lab of Harold Varmus, I learned to focus on questions in biology that I really cared about rather than on what was most easily published in top journals. I am grateful to my three mentors for their continued friendship. My work has been enormously helped by wonderful collaborators, including Jack Griffith, who discovered the t-loop structure with me. The people who worked with me, including Stewart Barnes, form a dream team that has provided me with some of the greatest happiness in my life. I thank my many dear friends (Amy, Bert, Dan, Edith, Eliot, Jackie, Jeff, Jim, John, Laura, Steve, Vicki, and many others) for keeping me sane. The NIH deserves credit for funding my work. Finally, I am grateful that evolution generated telomeres, the most fascinating and rewarding subject I can imagine.