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Nobel Prize Awarded For Work With Glowing Jellyfish Protein

October 8, 2008

Two Americans and one Japanese researcher were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for the discovery and development of a brightly glowing protein first seen in jellyfish, which has helped scientists understand how cancer cells spread.

American researchers Martin Chalfie of Columbia University in New York and Roger Tsien of the University of California, San Diego and Japanese-born Osamu Shimomura now of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts received the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4 million) prize for their understanding of the glowing green florescent protein (GFP).

“The remarkable brightly glowing green fluorescent protein, GFP, was first observed in the beautiful jellyfish, Aequorea victoria in 1962,” the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

“Since then, this protein has become one of the most important tools used in contemporary bioscience.”

Shimomura first isolated GFP from a jellyfish found off the west coast of North America in 1962 and discovered that it glowed bright green under ultraviolet light. For 20 years, he made a summer pilgrimage to Friday Harbor in Washington state to collect more than 3,000 jellyfish each day.

In the 1990s, Chalfie showed GFP’s value “as a luminous genetic tag,” while Tsien contributed “to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces,” the academy said in its citation.

Chalfie and colleagues got bacteria such as E. coli and tiny worms called C. elegans to produce the protein by splicing in the right gene. The green color of the jellyfish protein appears under blue and ultraviolet light, allowing researchers to illuminate tumor cells, trace toxins and to monitor genes as they turn on and off.

“We can simply look inside an animal and say where has this gene been turned on, when is it turned on and when the protein is made, where does it go?” Chalfie said.. “They have their own flashlight telling you where they are.”

Researchers have been able to use GFP to track nerve cell damage from Alzheimer’s disease or see how insulin-producing beta-cells are created in the pancreas of a growing embryo.

“In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colors,” the citation said.

Tsien’s work helped extend GFP’s usefulness by adding more colors to the palette that glowed longer with more intensity, the academy said.

By exchanging various amino acids in different parts of GFP, he was able to get it to absorb and emit different colors, including blue, cyan and yellow.

“That is how researchers today can mark different proteins in different colors to see their interactions,” the academy said in its citation.

GFP has been used for art as well as for science. A green-glowing bunny named Alba was made in 2000 at the request of Chicago artist Eduardo Kac and green-glowing pigs have been gene engineered and bred to make green-glowing piglets.

The three scientists will split the 10 million kronor award.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia

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