Thomas R. Cech is the director of the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he first joined the faculty in 1978. In 2000, Cech became president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the nation’s largest private biomedical research organization. He returned to CU-Boulder in 2009.
In 1982, Cech and his research group announced that an RNA molecule from Tetrahymena, a single-celled pond organism, cut and rejoined chemical bonds in the complete absence of proteins. Thus RNA was not restricted to being a passive carrier of genetic information, but could have an active role in cellular metabolism. This discovery of self-splicing RNA provided the first exception to the long-held belief that biological reactions are always catalyzed by proteins. In addition, it has been heralded as providing a new, plausible scenario for the origin of life; because RNA can be both an information-carrying molecule and a catalyst, perhaps the first self-reproducing system consisted of RNA alone.
Cech earned a B.A. from Grinnell College and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California Berkeley. He did postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cech’s work has been recognized by many national and international awards and prizes, including the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1989) and the National Medal of Science (1995). He has been elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Institute of Medicine, and the European Molecular Biology Organization.