Nobel Laureate, Thomas R. Cech PhD visited the Department of Chemistry on the 16th October 2017 to deliver the 2017 Herchel Smith Lecture. Tom, who is Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Director of the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute, and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute was hosted by Shankar for the day.

Tom held meetings with a number of academics throughout the day including a roundtable discussion with 15 PhD students from Chemistry before addressing over 400 attendees with his talk entitled Shedding some Light on the Dark Matter of the Genomic University - Ribozymes, Telomerase and Regulating Epigenetics.

Tom’s talk started with his early work on RNA through to RNAs associated with proteins and proteins associated with RNA. Linking genomics with the dark matter of space, he discussed the presence and purpose of long non-coding RNAs (lncRNA), which are not protein coding. Despite this, some of these lncRNAs do have a purpose and he described the work he carried out on the discovery of ribozymes that lead to his Nobel Prize. He briefly discussed the mechanism they discovered, the importance of shape/conformation for this group of RNAs to carry out their job as catalysts of protein splicing and the implications of this discovery for the RNA world hypothesis.

Tom then went on to talk about slightly more recent work on telomerase recruitment in cells. By using CRISPR and single-molecule fluorescence microscopy they tracked telomerase in living cells. He talked about the protein interactions that are important for telomerase recruitment (binding to the TPP1 subunit of shelterin).

He finished with PRC2, a chromatin modifying protein that binds to and is recruited by RNAs, which is important for epigenetics. Although it acts on chromatin, it binds to the linker DNA between nucleosomes rather than nucleosomes themselves.

Following the lecture, Herchel Smith’s son, Marcus, presented Tom with an engraved tankard. Marcus, together with Tom and his wife, Carol, attended a reception and dinner at St Catherine’s College.

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