Discovery and Use of Glowing Protein Leads to Nobel Prize for Three Scientists

Scientists examine the expression of the glowing fluorescent protein (GFP) in Salmonella. (Photo credit: Peggy Greb/USDA)

Scientists examine the expression of the glowing fluorescent protein (GFP) in Salmonella. (Photo credit: Peggy Greb/USDA)

Do you have your biology textbook handy? Check out the glowing mouse on the Chapter 8 opener. Pretty cool, huh? This week, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work related to the discovery and subsequent use of the glowing protein called the green fluorescent protein, or GFP.

The three scientists awarded with the Nobel Prize include Dr. Osamu Shimomura, an emeritus professor at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and Boston University Medical School; Dr. Martin Chalfie, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University; and Dr. Roger Tsien, a professor of pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego. The three scientists will share the 10 million krona prize ($1.4 million) given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Shimomura, working with Dr. Frank Johnson at Princeton University, first isolated GFP from the crystal jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) in 1962. The protein was originally called the green protein because it appeared green in color under sunlight and fluorescent green under ultraviolet light.

After Dr. Chalfie learned about GFP at a seminar in 1988, he decided that it would be useful in his studies of C. elegans, a transparent roundworm. Dr. Chalfie thought that GFP could be used as a biological marker by splicing the gene that makes the glowing protein into an organism’s DNA next to a gene switch or another gene. The glowing biological marker can be used to track gene function and cell movement.

Dr. Tsien’s contribution to the use of GFP was to develop a procedure to produce proteins that glowed colors other than green because he needed more than two colors of fluorescent proteins for his experiments. By using biological markers with several different glowing colors, scientists can track different processes at the same time.

Since the discovery and development of GFP, the technology has been used for a number of different applications, a factor that was important in the decision to award the scientists with the Nobel Prize. For example, in one elaborate experiment, scientists tagged different nerve cells in a mouse’s brain with a “kaleidescope of color.” By doing so, they could more easily see the variety and complexity of neuronal connections within the mouse’s brain. GFP has also been used in the study of nerve cell damage due to Alzheimer’s disease.

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