The 2008 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded today to three biochemists for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP, originating in the Aequorea victoria jellyfish. The three scientists - Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien - contributed greatly to the study of cell biology, by identifying and marking proteins that contribute to illness and disease.
Microscopic cell study has been greatly enhanced by the discovery of GFP, the exquisite fluorescent green protein, discovered by Japanese scientist, Osamu Shimomura. Of Japanese descent, Shimomura was recruited to Princeton University in New Jersey in the early 1960's, after he published his discovery of a mollusc protein that glowed 37,000 times more brightly than the crushed mollusc itself.
Princeton put Shimomura to the task of identifying the glowing protein in the Aequorea victoria jellyfish that glows green with agitation. Shimomura discovered that the protein that glowed in the jellyfish was really blue and that the sea water absorbed by its cells made the jellyfish glow green. But, it turned out that when seen under a UV light, the blue protein also looked green. Hence, it became known as the green fluorescent protein, GFP.
Later Shimomura showed that GFP contained a special chromophore that sucks up the energy, say from a UV light, and then emits the energy without any additional chemicals to illuminate it. This aspect of GFP separates it from other bioluminescent proteins. Injecting foreign chemicals into a cell may have unpredictable reactions and may destroy the cell.
Nobel Prize U.S. awardee Martin Chafee, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, used GFP to identify various biological phenomena in the earthworm, a creature frequently studied because of its genetic similarity to humans. Chafee actually used the GFP as kind of a lightbulb to observe and record the behavior of specific protein switches in the cells, for example, the insulin protein. He was even able to color six genetic cells with the assistance of GFP.
The third Nobel winning Laureate in Chemistry, American Roger Y. Tsien, was critical in the initial discovery of how to influence GFP, through DNA technology, to reflect colors other than green. By researcher modification of just a few amino acids in the chromophore, the GFP was able to absorb and emit different colors in the color spectrum like cyan, blue, and yellow. Later, with the help of two Russian researchers, Mikhail Matz and Sergei Lukyanov, Tsien was able to use and alter DsRed so that it could be utilized as a fluorescent tag. DsRed, one of the easiest fluorescent colors to observe, is now used to identify many of the illness and disease producing proteins.
Tsien gave his first fluorescent colors the names of fruit like mPlum, mCherry, mStrawberry, mOrange and mCitrine. Since that time, other researchers have contributed "designer" names for fluorescent colors that they have named.
To the left are two pictures of the "Brainbow," colors given to proteins of the mouse brain to enable researchers at Harvard University to study how nerve cells in the brain are woven together. (2007)
The discovery and development of GFP, what makes the simple jellyfish light up, has made it possible for scientists to visualize so many cellular disease processes and compare them to normal cellular processes, among many other scientific endeavors in other fields. This has made identification of disease, and even new treatment delivery techniques, possible. That is why Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien have received the 2008 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
sources: Nobel Prize Committee Press Release, GFP Scientific Background, How the Jellyfish’s Green Light Revolutionised Bioscience
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