2012: Green Fluorescent Protein

AWARDEES: Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien

SCIENCE: Medical Advances from Jellyfish

FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCIES: National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health

In 1961, no one would have predicted that studying why a jellyfish glows green would one day lead to advances in genetics, cell biology, developmental biology, and neurobiology, to a better understanding of cancer, brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and other human diseases, and methods used widely by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Osamu Shimomura, who was born in 1928 in Kyoto, Japan, came to Princeton University after being awarded a Ph.D. degree at Nagoya University. In 1962, he and Princeton professor Frank Johnson gathered thousands of jellyfish known as Aequorea victoria off the coast of Washington, studying their luminescence and isolating a protein that glowed light green in daylight and fluorescent green in UV light.

In 1988, a quarter century later, Martin Chalfie, born in 1947 in Chicago, heard about this green fluorescent protein (GFP). A biochemist who had earned his Ph.D. degree at Harvard University, Chalfie conceived of using the protein to map gene expression in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. By doing so, he demonstrated how the gene for GFP could be connected to gene switches or genes in other proteins. The result was that researchers could follow different proteins to observe the chemical processes of cells, which constitute the basic functioning of an organism.

Roger Tsien was born in 1952 in New York and earned a Ph.D. degree from Cambridge University.  Improving on GFP’s value for research, Tsien exchanged amino acids within GFP to create stronger luminescence and different colors. His work allowed researchers to track different proteins, and different biological processes, at one time.

Shimomura, Chalfie and Tsien won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008. GFP, identified and developed through research funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, remains a fundamental tool for researchers all over the world. It recently played a crucial role in 2012 research involving the integration of stem cells into existing heart muscle in the hope of developing new treatments for damaged heart tissue.