Jack W. Szostak

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Jack Szostak

Szostak at the 2010 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
Jack William Szostak

(1952-11-09) November 9, 1952 (age 71)
CitizenshipCanada, United States
Alma materMcGill University (BSc)
Cornell University (PhD)
Scientific career
Synthetic Biology
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago (2022)
Harvard Medical School
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
ThesisSpecific binding of a synthetic oligonucleotide to the yeast iso-1 cytochrome c̲ mRNA and gene (1977)
Doctoral advisorRay Wu
Notable studentsDavid Bartel
Jennifer Doudna
Hiroaki Suga
Neha Kamat
Terry Orr-Weaver[1]

Jack William Szostak FRS (born November 9, 1952)[2] is a Canadian American[3] biologist of Polish British descent, Nobel Prize laureate, University Professor at the University of Chicago, former Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and Alexander Rich Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. Szostak has made significant contributions to the field of genetics. His achievement helped scientists to map the location of genes in mammals and to develop techniques for manipulating genes. His research findings in this area are also instrumental to the Human Genome Project. He was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres.

Education and early life[edit]

Szostak grew up in Montreal and Ottawa. Although Szostak does not speak Polish, he stated in an interview with Wprost weekly that he remembers his Polish roots.[4] He attended Riverdale High School (Quebec) and graduated at the age of 15 with the scholars prize.[5] He graduated with a B.Sc in cell biology from McGill University at the age of 19. In 1970, as an undergraduate, he participated in The Jackson Laboratory's Summer Student Program under the mentorship of Dr. Chen K. Chai. He completed his PhD in biochemistry at Cornell University (advisor Prof. Ray Wu[6]) before moving to Harvard Medical School to start his own lab at the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute. He credits Ruth Sager for giving him his job there when he had little yet to show. In 1984 Howard Goodman recruited him to Massachusetts General Hospital and the Department of Molecular Biology. He was granted tenure and a full professorship at Harvard Medical School in 1988. In 2022, he moved to the University of Chicago as a university professor in the Department of Chemistry and the College.[7]

Research and career[edit]

Szostak has made contributions to the field of genetics. He is credited with the construction of the world's first yeast artificial chromosome. That achievement helped scientists to map the location of genes in mammals and to develop techniques for manipulating genes. His achievements in this area are also instrumental to the Human Genome Project.

His discoveries have helped to clarify the events that lead to chromosomal recombination—the reshuffling of genes that occurs during meiosis—and the function of telomeres, the specialized DNA sequences at the tips of chromosomes.

In the early 90s his laboratory shifted its research direction and focused on studying RNA enzymes, which had been recently discovered by Cech and Altman. He developed the technique of in vitro evolution of RNA (also developed independently by Gerald Joyce) which enables the discovery of RNAs with desired functions through successive cycles of selection, amplification and mutation. He isolated the first aptamer (term he used for the first time). He isolated RNA enzymes with RNA ligase activity directly from random sequence (project of David Bartel).

Currently, his lab focuses on the challenges of understanding the origin of life on Earth, and the construction of artificial cellular life in the laboratory.[8] They have conducted detailed studies of mechanisms by which RNA templates may have replicated on early Earth before the emergence of enzyme catalysts. In particular, they have focused on imidazole-activated ribonucleotides (phosphorimidazolides) as monomers capable of elongating a new RNA strand.[9] Significantly, the Szostak group discovered that phosphorimidazolide-mediated template elongation occurs via 5'-5'-imidazolium bridged dinucleotide intermediates[10] which accelerate polymerization. Phosphorimidazolides were first proposed to be critical for early-Earth nucleotide polymerization by Leslie E. Orgel and colleagues.

Szostak and Katarzyna Adamala demonstrated that the issues of a degrading effect of magnesium ions on RNA and the disruption of a fatty acid membrane by magnesium ions can be simultaneously solved by the presence of weak cation chelator like citric acid in primitive protocells.[11]

Beyond his research, he has delivered talks about the origin of life on Earth, as he did at the first Starmus Festival in the Canary Islands, in 2011. He subsequently joined the Starmus Board of Directors, and his 2011 lecture was published in the book Starmus: 50 Years of Man in Space.[12]

In September 2022, Szostak joined the faculty of the University of Chicago as university professor, leading a new interdisciplinary program called the Origins of Life Initiative.[13]

Awards and honors[edit]

Szostak has received several awards and honors for his contributions. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and New York Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society,[14] and is a member of the Kosciuszko Foundation Collegium of Eminent Scientists of Polish Origin and Ancestry.[15]

He has received the following awards:

An organism's genes are stored within DNA molecules, which are found in chromosomes inside its cells' nuclei. When a cell divides, it is important that its chromosomes are copied in full, and that they are not damaged. At each end of a chromosome lies a "cap" or telomere, as it is known, which protects it. After Elizabeth Blackburn discovered that telomeres have a particular DNA, through experiments conducted on ciliates and yeast, she and Jack Szostak proved in 1982 that the telomeres' DNA prevents chromosomes from being broken down,

according to the statement released by the Alfred Nobel Foundation.[16]

Personal life[edit]

Szostak was married to Terri-Lynn McCormick and has two sons.[17] He has two sisters, Carolyn Szostak and Kathy Hysen.[18]


  1. ^ "Nobel Prize Physiology Medicine 2009". Nobel Prize. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  2. ^ Jack William Szostak. Bookrags.com. November 2, 2010. Retrieved December 24, 2015.
  3. ^ a b "The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine - Press Release". Nobelprize.org. October 5, 2009. Retrieved December 24, 2015.
  4. ^ I want to get to know first steps of evolution - Interview with Jack Szostak (in Polish) "Moi pradziadowie wyemigrowali z Polski do USA. Ja urodziłem się w Londynie, a potem mieszkałem w Kanadzie. Niestety, nie mówię po polsku, ale chętnie przyznaje się do swoich polskich korzeni"( English translation: "My grandparents emigrated from Poland to the U.S.A. i was born in London, and then lived in Canada. Unfortunately, I do not speak Polish, but I eagerly confess to my Polish roots")
  5. ^ "Jack W. Szostak - Biographical". The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009. Nobel Media. Retrieved January 12, 2017.
  6. ^ Szostak, Jack (February 1, 2009). "Ray Wu, as remembered by a former student". Science in China Series C: Life Sciences. 52 (2): 108–110. doi:10.1007/s11427-009-0023-6. PMID 19277516. S2CID 22028369.
  7. ^ "Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jack Szostak to join University of Chicago faculty | University of Chicago News". news.uchicago.edu. Retrieved September 14, 2022.
  8. ^ http://exploringorigins.org/ Exploringorigins.org
  9. ^ Walton, Travis; Zhang, Wen; Li, Li; Tam, Chun Pong; Szostak, Jack (2019). "The Mechanism of Nonenzymatic Template Copying with Imidazole-Activated Nucleotides". Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 58 (32): 10812–10819. doi:10.1002/anie.201902050. PMID 30908802.
  10. ^ Walton, Travis; Szostak, Jack (2016). "A Highly Reactive Imidazolium-Bridged Dinucleotide Intermediate in Nonenzymatic RNA Primer Extension". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 138 (36): 11996–12002. doi:10.1021/jacs.6b07977. PMC 6326528. PMID 27552367.
  11. ^ Adamala, K.; Szostak, J. W. (2013). "Nonenzymatic Template-Directed RNA Synthesis Inside Model Protocells". Science. 342 (6162): 1098–1100. Bibcode:2013Sci...342.1098A. doi:10.1126/science.1241888. PMC 4104020. PMID 24288333.
  12. ^ "Starmus Festival and Stephen Hawking Launch the Book 'Starmus, 50... - TENERIFE, Spain, September 7, 2014 /PR Newswire UK/". United Kingdom, Spain, Russia: Prnewswire.co.uk. September 7, 2014. Retrieved December 24, 2015.
  13. ^ "Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jack Szostak to join University of Chicago faculty | University of Chicago News".
  14. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved March 19, 2021.
  15. ^ "Kosciuszko Foundation - American Center of Polish culture - Eminent Scientists of Polish Origin and Ancestry". www.thekf.org. Archived from the original on May 9, 2018. Retrieved September 18, 2017.
  16. ^ ""In My Lab We're Trying to Create Synthetic Life": Jack Szostak". Ciencia del Sur. Archived from the original on April 23, 2018. Retrieved March 11, 2018.
  17. ^ http://onthecoattailsofgiants.blogspot.co.uk Blog written by Szostak's wife describing their experience visiting Sweden to receive his Nobel Prize. Retrieved, December 29, 2017.
  18. ^ http://yourlifemoments.ca/sitepages/obituary.asp?oid=992205 Obituary of Szostak's mother, with family details.

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