Terra Sigillata

You probably thought this was going to be about Dr Robert Gallo.

Driving in to lab this morning I heard Dan Charles’ story on NPR’s Morning Edition about the unheralded scientist, Dr Douglas Prasher, who first cloned the green fluorescent protein gene from Aequorea victoria in 1992, as published in Gene. This amazing laboratory tool, you will note, was the focus of yesterday’s awarding of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Prasher freely distributed the cDNA to those requesting it, including at least two of the three recently Nobelists.

Because of funding shortfalls from both NIH and the USDA, Dr Prasher is currently driving a courtesy shuttle for a Huntsville, Alabama, automobile dealership.

The heartbreaking story, described by one scientist as “a staggering waste of talent,” will be available on the NPR site at 9:00 am EDT.

Very nice enterprise reporting by Dan Charles.

Comments

  1. #1 Barn Owl
    October 9, 2008

    Thanks for this and your other excellent post on the 2008 Nobel Chemistry Prize. From PubMed, Prasher was a co-author on at least two key papers with Chalfie and Tsien, and his latest publication appears to be in 1997. I haven’t listened to the NPR piece yet (I’ll catch it this hour, or online after 9:00), but was the funding shortfall his only reason for leaving science?

  2. #2 Lisa
    October 9, 2008

    Ah, this scares me. My husband is a research scientist with the govt right now in plants. We had to move to Canada for two years recently because the US just doesn’t want to hire its own citizens anymore. We got back here on a temp. job. This story made me cry. We are about to be between jobs again, and it’s tough to find one. My husband has done some really great work in genetics, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I am angry at the way our nation has chewed up and spit out so many of its great scientists in search of cheap labor.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    October 9, 2008

    I heard the story on NPR in the car this morning and really made me perk up – quite an astonishing story and what a great person! After not getting funded, he worked in an NIH lab for a little while, then a NASA institute in Alabama, and when that closed, he got a job at the local car dealership. While he says that his savings are gone, he also sounds cheerful and humble and happy that these guys got the Nobel.

  4. #4 Chemgeek
    October 9, 2008

    This reminds me of a quote from Caddyshack (paraphrased):
    “So I says to the Dali, I say, ‘Hey Dali, how about a little something, ya know, for the effort?'”

  5. #5 Paul
    October 9, 2008

    It certainly seems odd that Prasher was passed over, after all he seems to have been one of the earliest scientists to realise the potential of GFP, and the contribution he made by sequencing it and then making the clones available to scientists who wanted them is undeniable.

    Perhaps the decision has something to do with his no longer having a career in science. Has the Nobel ever been awarded to somebody no longer working in the field, a related field or retired?

  6. #6 Ambitwistor
    October 9, 2008

    Slightly off topic, but I heard the NPR piece, and winced when he said he liked interacting with people in his car dealership job because science is loner work.

    That’s not really the PR image science needs … and I have to wonder what kind of position he had. I talk to so many people every week, inside and outside my research group, that I sometimes can hardly get any work done. And I’m not even faculty.

  7. #7 Sigmund
    October 9, 2008

    This is exactly the sort of story that should be told to young people interested in a career in scientific research.
    Ending up outside academic research is the fate of the vast majority of those who try for that career, not a rare unfortunate result for a few individuals like Dr Prasher.
    It would be nice and fitting, however, if the other three recipients could acknowledge him properly over the prize.

  8. #8 Marc Perry
    October 9, 2008

    Thank you for bringing public attention to this travesty (in my opinion). I fully realize that there can be some deep politics behind the various committee’s decisions on whom to bestow a Nobel Prize (cf. the recent omission of R. Gallo), but this one just seems plain wrong. As a research scientist I followed the development of this technology since the paper published in Gene in 1992 (and have used many variants of GFP in transgenic animals). To my mind it is quite clear that Doug Prasher was the driving force behind this discovery. This is not to say that the other individuals did not make significant contributions, but for my money, Prasher should have been recognized in place of Marty Chalfie.

  9. #9 aquababie
    October 9, 2008

    i heard the story this morning myself as well. i don’t see how the committee could have left him out. because of his generosity, they were able to do the work which led to then ultimately receiving the nobel prize.

  10. #10 aquababie
    October 9, 2008

    i heard the story this morning myself as well. i don’t see how the committee could have left him out. because of his generosity, they were able to do the work which led to then ultimately receiving the nobel prize.

  11. #11 Blue Maas, BSN DVM PhD
    October 9, 2008

    What a sooooo elitest (read that … snotty, snobbish) statement re “a staggering waste of talent” of Dr Douglas Prasher of Huntsville, Alabama. The person stating this mindset of his own brain — about Dr Prasher’s … brain? How is it his right to make such a judgment on Dr Prasher and, now, his daily comings and goings and thinkings and doings? I do everything I can — and have to … nearly every single day — to make it clear that (being 16 – 1/2 years and [child – ]supporting three children through 81 months of UNinterrupted, always – on – time, FULL payments) a secretary is a mighty fine position to have and one of great detail, accuracy in that detail … and (always, always, always) accountability (read that … integrity and humility). How am I then, also a former scientist with a BSN, DVM and PhD who did not have the $K$s after daily living costs, attorneys’ fees and children’s support payments to reup / renew all of the annual CE credits and degrees’ licensures, I would ask this speaker, … a staggering waste of talent? How dare this “talker” — with such the narcissistic, entitled arrogance? Blue of central Iowa http://bluemAAs.public.iastate.edu

  12. #12 Abel Pharmboy
    October 9, 2008

    Quickly looking at the comment thread accumulating at the NPR site, it looks like Dr Prasher is already being asked by some academic medical centers to submit an application – this one from someone at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/community/persona.php?uid=2096660

  13. #13 Mary
    October 9, 2008

    Congratulations, Dr. Prasher (if you’re reading this). Your extraordinary foresight was the groundwork for the research, and I hope you’re acknowledged publicly and appropriately. We thank you for your service to science.

  14. #14 Mary
    October 9, 2008

    Congratulations, Dr. Prasher (if you’re reading this). Your extraordinary foresight was the groundwork for the research, and I hope you’re acknowledged publicly and appropriately. We thank you for your service to science.

  15. #15 JonW
    October 9, 2008

    To Paul: No, you don’t have to be in science or be “active” to win a Nobel.
    Examples: Jack Kilby won a Nobel in Physics even though he never worked in academic physics research, he was an engineer tinkering with integrated circuits. And Shamu and Shimomura – who won in physics and chemistry, respectively, this year – are retired professors.

  16. #16 JonW
    October 9, 2008

    I meant to write Nambu, not Shamu!!! Sorry :(

  17. #17 Jennifer C
    October 10, 2008

    Doug works at Bill Penney Toyota in Huntsville.

    I really hope someone heard his story and will offer him an amazing job. He has never been anything but great to all of us that work with him.

  18. #18 Kristjan Wager
    October 11, 2008

    One of the reasons why he might have been overlooked, is because only three people can share a prize.

  19. #19 Austin Elliott
    October 17, 2008

    We’ve been talking about this story over on < Nature Network here.

  20. #20 Nobel's shame
    October 17, 2008

    Chalfie preyed on Prasher’s weak funding position. Chalfie got the clones as a collaboration, had members of his lab (not even himself) do the final experiments, put himself first author in the paper published in Science, and went around outrageously stating that it had been his idea in the first place to use GFP. Chalfie’s contribution is not deserving of a Nobel prize. The prize should go to Prasher.

  21. #21 Austin Elliott
    October 17, 2008

    For anyone still following this, there is an interesting interview with Chalfie from a few years ago here. And some Google Book extracts from a recent book about fluorescent and luminescent proteins whose authors interviewed, and quote, many of the people involved in the early GFP work, are here – pages 103-127 are the ones to read.

  22. #22 Austin Elliott
    October 18, 2008

    Oops – sent another comment but it seems to have got permanently hung in the spam filters.

    A read around on the net suggests the last comment from “Nobel’s Shame” is wide of the mark. Chalfie intuited what could be done with a fluorescent protein in organisms OTHER than their parent ones (like fluorescent jellyfish), and then showed it could be done in the organism he worked on, C. elegans. And Prasher was a co-author on the first paper.

    That hardly sounds like him “preying” on Prasher. It sounds like – well, like scientists collaborating.

  23. #23 Abel Pharmboy
    October 18, 2008

    Hi Austin, thanks for directing me to Corie Lok’s discussion thread. I also agree that Prasher was not at all preyed upon – he freely gave out the clone and was indeed on some key papers. Jonathan Eisen posted this quote from Prasher that exemplifies the collaborative spirit you describe:

    “When you’re using public funds, I personally believe you have an obligation to share,” Prasher said. “I put my heart and soul into it, but if I kept that stuff, it wasn’t gonna go anyplace.”

  24. #24 Anne
    October 19, 2008

    Can anyone tell me what did Chalfie do to deserve this recognition? Prasher spent years searching for the GFP gene precisely to see if it would serve as a fluorescent tracer of genes and proteins in organisms other than the jellyfish. When he is almost there, his funding is not renewed and his lab shuts down, so he contacts Chalfie to have the last step (expression in bacteria and eukaryotic cells) done. Chalfie cannot do it himself, but asks competent members of his well funded lab to do it. A few weeks later this is done. Chalfie puts himself first in the author list (even though he has not conceived the project or done the experiments) and gets the credit and a Nobel Prize. For what? Self promotion?

  25. #25 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 19, 2008

    Chalfie cannot do it himself, but asks competent members of his well funded lab to do it.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!! There is so much ingnorance of how biomedical science works packed into that short sentence!!!!!!

    The scientists in Chalfie’s lab who physically performed the experiments were a technician and an early-stage graduate student working under Chalfie’s direction and mentorship. Prasher may have had the idea to express GFP in heterologous organisms, including in cell-specific pattern in a multicellular eukaryote. The technician and graduate student may have physically made the transgenic construct, injected the worms, and photographed the fluorescent images. But Chalfie made the shit fucking happen.

    I am not saying that Prasher wouldn’t have merited sharing the Nobel were it not limited to three people, but Chalfie clearly deserves it. The tech and grad student were carrying out Chalfie’s instructions.

  26. #26 The Fluorescent thing
    October 19, 2008

    The fluorescent thing happened because the grad student and the tech were carrying out Prasher’s instructions given to Chalfie: to express the GFP gene in bacteria and animal cells. Chalfie facilitates the research by providing the resources (a couple of months of work from two of his students and technicians) to have this done. He deserves credit for having recognized the potential of Prasher’s project and for providing a few resources to have it concluded. Is that enough for a Nobel? By that measure, the Nobel should go to the American Cancer Society review members who funded Prasher’s project to begin with. Serously, the Nobel should go to Prasher.

  27. #27 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 19, 2008

    The fluorescent thing happened because the grad student and the tech were carrying out Prasher’s instructions given to Chalfie: to express the GFP gene in bacteria and animal cells.

    Carrying out Prasher’s instructions!?!?!? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!

    What Prasher had was an idea. Chalfie’s group made it happen.

  28. #28 DC
    December 11, 2008

    If I am in “Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien”‘s shoes, I would have not only invited Mr./Mrs. Prasher to the Nobel Prize ceremony but would also have shared the prize money at least by looking at the present circumstances that Mr. Prasher is going through. It is a pity of our society that what fate a law abiding brilliant family man can have for being ‘just good’! On the other hand, look at ALL the corrupt politicians and corporate executives! All I can offer to Mr. Prasher is this – “If ever you have to loose your house, the door of my house is open for you and your family!”
    DC

  29. #29 Cheng
    December 16, 2008

    My son chose Rutgers University over UC Berkeley and his goal is to do Nobel Prize level of research, so I have written to President McCormick to recruit Dr. Prasher to come to Rutgers University.

    Anyone has contact information of Dr. Prasher and would like to see him back to science and research field at Rutgers University, the best public university in NJ, please let me know.

  30. #30 Dr. Ravi S. Pandey
    May 4, 2009

    I read this news on October 10, 2008 by evening after my laboratory schedule. It was hurting news, but also bitter truth. Being a scientist, it’s not possible to blame any body or any system. But, I just like to explore my inner sole sound. I like to congratulate Dr. Tsien, Chalfie and Shimomura for their great effort in characterization of green fluorescent protein and winning the most honorable award. To the best of my belief, a real scientist always focuses the target. Its really surprise, to ignore the pioneer of GFP, Dr. Doug Prashers. I like to request the Noble prize committee and US president to honor Dr. Doug Prashers as a pioneer of discovery and place him in a reputed research laboratory to explore his scientific thoughts.

  31. This year, the story repeated: Dr. Olovnikov, who has first proposed the role of telomeres in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1973, was not mentioned yesterday at the Nobel ceremony. The 2009 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the experimentalists who have proved Olovnikov’s theory in 1982. http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091005/full/461706a.html

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