Terra Sigillata

Nature’s gift of green fluorescent protein (GFP) from the jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, has always been important to me, personally and professionally. In fact, PharmGirl, MD, and I would have never met if not for this wonder macromolecule nor then would PharmKid exist.

Well, it appears that GFP has been of enough important to others that the three scientists central to its discovery and development were just awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry:

Osamu Shimomura (Woods Hole and Boston University) 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 (Columbia University) 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 (University of California, San Diego) 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.

My early morning gut reaction is that chemists will argue vigorously that this is a biological discovery that has fueled biology (albeit, biochemical) research. This will not be the first time that anyone will argue there should be a separate Nobel Prize in Biology.

However, the intrinsic fluorescence of GFP is truly a chemical marvel of nature. Tsien in particular has meticulously dissected the chemistry of the molecule and used genetic methods to change the chemistry of protein to yield different colors, allowing biochemists to tag multiple regulators of cellular processes to investigate the interplay of multiple pathways.

Second, is that many may argue that GFP is a new biochemical tool that overlooks many other contributions to chemistry over the past decades. In point of fact, however, Japanese Nobelist Shimomura has been working on marine fluorescent proteins since 1955. The application of GFP to biochemical research may be relatively recent, but the groundwork for its chemical basis was laid decades ago before a great many of us were born.

Finally, the recognizing the significance of the GFP discovery and application is solid evidence for the need for funding agencies to support a broad range of chemical and biological research. At a time when politicians decry seemingly (to them) esoteric research projects and funding agencies are intoxicated by “translational research,” this award reminds us that even basic biochemical investigations of terrestrial and marine life forms can lead to crucial advances in the understanding of human disease. The relevance and value of such discoveries may not be apparent until years later but it is clear that understanding why mollusks and jellyfish glow has paid innumerable dividends.

Taken together with firefly luciferase, I am hardpressed to identify a biochemical laboratory that does not routinely employ one of more of these classes of macromolecules in their daily investigations.

I’m sure that SpongeBob and Patrick are quite pleased today as well.


  1. #1 freelunch
    October 8, 2008

    Congratulations to the winners. It also helps that it has a coolness factor for the layman.

    Isn’t the physiology/medicine prize a biology prize already? What with that and biochemistry, wouldn’t adding a biology prize just let the biologists get three prizes instead of two?

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