The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008

Osamu Shimomura Martin Chalfie Roger Y. Tsien
Osamu Shimomura Martin Chalfie Roger Y. Tsien
third 1/3 of the prize third 1/3 of the prize third 1/3 of the prize
Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL)
Woods Hole, MA, USA
Columbia University
New York, NY, USA
University of California
San Diego, CA, USA
b. 1928 b. 1947 b. 1952

Glowing proteins – a guiding star for biochemistry

The remarkable brightly glowing green fluorescent protein, GFP, was first observed in the beautiful jellyfish, Aequorea victoria in 1962. Since then, this protein has become one of the most important tools used in contemporary bioscience. With the aid of GFP, researchers have developed ways to watch processes that were previously invisible, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or how cancer cells spread.

Tens of thousands of different proteins reside in a living organism, controlling important chemical processes in minute detail. If this protein machinery malfunctions, illness and disease often follow. That is why it has been imperative for bioscience to map the role of different proteins in the body.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry rewards the initial discovery of GFP and a series of important developments which have led to its use as a tagging tool in bioscience. By using DNA technology, researchers can now connect GFP to other interesting, but otherwise invisible, proteins. This glowing marker allows them to watch the movements, positions and interactions of the tagged proteins.

Researchers can also follow the fate of various cells with the help of GFP: nerve cell damage during Alzheimer’s disease or 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 colours.

The story behind the discovery of GFP is one with the three Nobel Prize Laureates in the leading roles:

Osamu Shimomura first isolated GFP from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which drifts with the currents off the west coast of North America. He discovered that this protein glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.

Martin Chalfie demonstrated the value of GFP as a luminous genetic tag for various biological phenomena. In one of his first experiments, he coloured six individual cells in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with the aid of GFP.

Roger Y. Tsien contributed to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces. He also extended the colour palette beyond green allowing researchers to give various proteins and cells different colours. This enables scientists to follow several different biological processes at the same time.


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