Concept 26 RNA was the first genetic molecule.

Stanley Miller Thomas Cech Stanley Miller and Harold Urey demonstrated that organic molecules can be synthesized under prebiotic conditions. Thomas Cech and Sidney Altman discovered that RNA can have enzymatic activities. For this discovery, they shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Thomas Robert Cech (1947-)

Thomas Cech

Thomas (Tom) Cech was born in Chicago and grew up in Iowa City. His father was an M.D. and his mother was a homemaker. As a child, Cech collected rocks and minerals and would "talk" science with his father and professors at the University of Iowa. Throughout high school, Cech was more interested in academics than sports.

In 1966, Cech went to Grinnell College to study chemistry - a subject he really enjoyed. College was a real eye-opener as he met others who were just as excited about academics as he was. He would have stayed in chemistry, but as an undergraduate, Cech worked at Argonne National Laboratory and at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. These research experiences made him realize that it just took too long to gather meaningful data for a chemistry experiment.

In 1970, Cech headed for the University of California at Berkeley for graduate work. Here he discovered the world of molecular biology. As he says, he "was thrilled with the much more rapid interplay between idea and experimental test that was possible in this field," and he "became committed to the interface between molecular biology and chemistry." Cech finished his Ph.D. thesis on DNA chromosome structure and then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for post doctoral work.

In 1978, Cech accepted a position in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder. It was here that he and his research group did the work leading to the discovery that RNA can self-splice and thus can act as a ribozyme. For this discovery, Cech shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Sidney Altman.

In 1988, Cech became an Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and in 2000, assumed duties as the President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute until 2009. Among his many honors and awards, Cech received the 1995 National Medal of Science.

Cech enjoys spending time with his family and outdoor activities like running and skiing. He also likes to cook - still a chemist at heart.

factoid Did you know ?

Harold Urey was Stanley Miller's second Ph.D. advisor. His first, Edward Teller, was a supporter of the development of the hydrogen bomb. After the war, Teller moved to the University of California to set up the Radiation Laboratory at Livermore.


Although Miller's experiment proved that organic molecules can be made in a pre-biotic world, scientists still aren't sure how the pieces were put together to produce 'life.' What do you think?