Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jack Szostak to join University of Chicago faculty

Pioneering scholar of genetics appointed University Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the College

Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jack Szostak will join the faculty of the University of Chicago as University Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the College, effective Sept. 1, 2022.

A pioneering scholar of genetics who examines the biochemical origins of life, Szostak shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009. Szostak currently serves as Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, Professor in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, the Alexander Rich Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital and as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

“Jack’s research has made a profound impact on fields including biology, human health, chemistry and physics, and he has dedicated his career to investigating the most difficult questions,” said Provost Ka Yee C. Lee, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry. “We are delighted to welcome him to the University of Chicago as a member of our academic community.”

University Professors are among those recruited at a senior level from outside the University and are selected for internationally recognized eminence in their fields as well as for their potential for high impact across the University. Szostak will become the 24th person to hold a University Professorship, and the 11th active faculty member holding that title.

“The University of Chicago is known worldwide for its history of discovery in the sciences, and I can’t think of a better place to host the exploration of fundamental questions like the origins of life,” Szostak said. “I’ve been thrilled with the depth and breadth of the conversations I’ve already had with my future colleagues, and I can’t wait to join them in Chicago.”

In 2009, Szostak shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres—the “end-cap” on a strand of DNA that protects the genetic information—and the enzyme telomerase.

In 1989, Victoria Lundblad and Szostak published a foundational paper showing that shortened telomeres caused a cell to age prematurely. This line of research has expanded into a major field, as scientists believe telomeres play key roles in aging, cell replication and cancer, among other areas.

Szostak’s work with yeast also yielded information on the biochemistry of DNA recombination—how DNA breaks, exchanges genetic information and repairs itself.

After his breakthroughs in the 1980s, Szostak switched fields and began to study RNA enzymes known as ribozymes. (One graduate student in his lab was Jennifer Doudna, who would win the 2020 Nobel Prize for the discovery of an RNA complex called CRISPR, which allows scientists to easily edit DNA.)

The study of ribozymes led Szostak to his current quest: For the past few decades, he has focused on trying to understand the origins of life—specifically, by synthesizing extremely simple artificial cells. He has said his work examines “the transition from chemistry to biology.”

By exploring the chemistry and physics behind the emergence of Darwinian evolution, his lab hopes to find explanations for some of the universal properties of modern cells, as well as how modern cells arose from their simpler ancestors. They have narrowed down two key ingredients for a working cell: a self-replicating genome and a self-replicating cell membrane.

Members of the UChicago community are eager to work across disciplines with Szostak.

“Jack is a tremendous scientist who has displayed a remarkable ability for finding ways to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge,” said Angela Olinto, dean of the Physical Sciences Division and the Albert A. Michelson Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Moreover, he’s currently engaged in asking fascinating questions, and we are looking forward to working with him in his current quest to expand our understanding of the origins of life.”

At UChicago, Szostak will lead a new interdisciplinary program called the Origins of Life Initiative, which will seek to understand the earliest processes governing the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe. Studies on the origins of life have a long history at UChicago, including the famous 1952 Miller-Urey experiment, which examined the abiotic synthesis of amino acids essential to life.

“Jack Szostak has made several remarkable contributions to the field of genetics beyond the work that was recognized by a Nobel Prize, and his investigations of prebiotic chemistry are widely recognized throughout the physical sciences,” said Prof. Andrei Tokmakoff, former chair of the Department of Chemistry, who helped recruit Szostak to UChicago. “We are delighted to welcome this consummate scholar to the University and are excited to see the collaborations and research that will flow from this new initiative.”

Szostak is the co-author of The Origins of Life (2010), holds numerous patents and has spun off two companies. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and he is a fellow of the Royal Society.

Szostak earned his B.Sc. in cell biology from McGill University and his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Cornell University.