Chemistry Nobel Prize Awarded for Glowing Protein Work

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
October 8, 2008
Two U.S. scientists and a U.S.-based Japanese researcher will share the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering and developing a glowing green protein that has been key to improving our understanding of cell development.

Osamu Shimomura, from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, will receive a third of the 10-million-Swedish-kronor (1.4-million-U.S.-dollar) prize for isolating green fluorescent protein (GFP) from crystal jellyfish (Aequorea victoria).

Martin Chalfie of Columbia University in New York also won a third of the prize for demonstrating how GFP could be used as a versatile genetic marker in virtually all organisms.

And Roger Tsien at the University of California, San Diego, takes the final third of the prize for his contribution to understanding how GFP glows and how it can be modified to produce an array of colors, work that prompted some of his peers to nickname him "Dr. Genius."

(Related: "'Brainbows' Illuminate the Mind's Wiring" [October 31, 2007].)

"GFP has been revolutionary to cell biology, and it is really exciting to see this area recognized," said Sean Sweeney, a researcher at the University of York in the U.K., who uses GFP to study neurodegenerative diseases.

"Previously the only way to study the developmental fate of cells was to be invasive—label cells with a dye and look at the dead, labeled tissue with a microscope," Sweeney said.

"Now we can label them genetically with GFP and look at cells live, over time."

Using GFP, scientists have been able to map the role of different proteins in the body. Researchers also use the protein to observe previously invisible processes, such as the growth of a nerve cell in the brain or the spread of a cancerous tumor.

From Jellyfish to Cancer Cells

Shimomura first isolated GFP in 1962 from crystal jellyfish, which are found off the west coast of North America.

The jellyfish has organs—arranged like a fringe hanging from its bell—that glow green when the animal is agitated.

Shimomura collected and studied samples of liquid from these organs and found it contained a protein that glows green under ultraviolet light. This protein, initially dubbed aequorin, is what would later be called GFP.

In 1992 Columbia's Chalfie cloned GFP and used it to make the bacterium Escherichia coli glow fluorescent green.

Later the following year Chalfie repeated the technique in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, coloring six different cells in the worm's body with the glowing substance.

Alison Woollard, a scientist at the University of Oxford, said, "Using GFP on C. elegans, I have been able to study cells as they develop, working out how they know when to take on a particular role, such as becoming a skin cell or an intestinal cell."

GFP can also demonstrate how things go wrong in living cells.

In recent years the protein has played a crucial role in cancer research, helping scientists understand the ways that tumors form and grow. It has also been used to look at nerve cell damage caused by Alzheimer's disease.

Glowing Rainbow

UC-San Diego's Tsien later added a range of color options to researchers' palettes as part of his lab's work to understand the chemistry of GFP's fluorescence.

His team modified GFP and other bioluminescent proteins to produce new variants with fruity names such as mPlum, mCherry, mOrange, and mHoneydew.

Oxford's Woollard said, "The use of many colors enables us to look at many proteins simultaneously."

For example, recently researchers used a rainbow of fluorescent proteins to label different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse.

Sweeney, of the University of York, added: "When I worked in a lab in San Francisco, we called Dr. Tsien 'Dr. Genius.'

"We would await his publications eagerly for the next 'trick' or tool that was going to revolutionize the way we tackled problems."

Last year's chemistry Nobel went to German researcher Gerhard Ertl for his work on the chemistry of solid surfaces, which set the stage for advances such as hydrogen fuel cells and automobile catalytic converters.

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