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.

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