In a single stroke of discovery, Dr. Cech overthrew the established dogma that any biological substance that acts as a catalyst in breaking or forming chemical bonds must, by definition, be a protein. These substances, essential to all life, are known as enzymes.
Dr. Cech had set out to identify the enzyme presumed to be responsible for deleting unnecessary sequences from the RNA copy of a particular gene, and rejoining the remaining portions to form a smaller, edited version.
He and his co-workers began to prepare many copies of the original, large RNA segments in order to isolate the enzyme supposedly at work. While incubating the RNA, Dr. Cech found that these molecules were being cut and reassembled into smaller, working copies, even though no protein was present in the system.
In two years of rigorous and disciplined work, Dr. Cech sought for flaws in his system which might account for the findings. He proved beyond doubt that no proteins, and, therefore, no conventional enzymes were present, and that the RNA itself was acting as an enzyme. Dr. Cech named this enzymatic piece of RNA the "ribozyme."
Dr. Cech's discovery, and his conscientious follow-up studies, inspired a burst of research on RNA, and have prompted the speculation that this remarkable molecule might have acted as a bridge between the non-living, pre-biotic world and the beginnings of life on Earth.
To Dr. Cech, for his revolutionary research revealing the enzymatic role of RNA, opening a new universe for research in molecular biology, this 1988 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award is given.