Stockholm, Sweden: Two Americans and a US-based Japanese scientist won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for discovering and developing a glowing jellyfish protein that revolutionized the ability to study disease and normal development in living organisms.
Flying colours: (from left) Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien and Osamu Shimomura, the winners of the 2008 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Josh Reynolds / AP
Japan’s Osamu Shimomura and Americans Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien shared the prize for their work on green fluorescent protein (GFP) the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Researchers now use GFP to track such processes as the development of brain cells, the growth of tumours and the spread of cancer cells. It has let them study nerve cell damage from Alzheimer’s disease and see how insulin-producing beta cells arise in the pancreas of a growing embryo, for example.
The academy compared the impact of GFP on science to the invention of the microscope. For the past decade, the academy said, the protein has been “a guiding star for biochemists, biologists, medical scientists and other researchers.”
When exposed to ultraviolet light, the protein glows green. So, it can act as a tracer to expose the movements of other, invisible proteins it is attached to as they go about their business.
It can also be used to mark particular cells in a tissue and show when and where particular genes turn on and off.
“In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colours,” the Nobel citation said.
Shimomura and a colleague found GFP in material they extracted from about 10,000 jellyfish of US coast. They reported in 1962 that it glowed bright green under ultraviolet light. Some 30 years later, Chalfie showed that the GFP gene could make individual nerve cells in a tiny worm glow bright green.
Tsien later extended the scientific palette to a variety of colours.