The three winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry are (from left) Martin Chalfie of Columbia University; Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese citizen who works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.; and Roger Tsien of the University of California, San Diego.
The three winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry are (from left) Martin Chalfie of Columbia University; Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese citizen who works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.; and Roger Tsien of the University of California, San Diego. AP
Fluorescent "tags" reveal how some cancer cells (blue) are making more of a specific protein (green).
The scientific work that gets a Nobel Prize these days is often hard to understand and describe. But this year's chemistry award is a crowd pleaser: It went to one Japanese and two American scientists who made things glow in the dark — with a jellyfish gene.
Roger Tsien, a professor at the University of California San Diego; Martin Chalfie of Columbia University; and Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., were recognized for their work in advancing understanding of the machinery inside living cells.
Life is essentially an intricate dance of proteins inside every cell of our bodies — proteins that were too tiny to be seen.
So for decades, scientists have been trying to find a way to make that invisible world visible.
Fifteen years ago, Tsien tried attaching chemical dyes to a protein. It didn't work very well, and he thought what he really needed was a gene that makes the protein visible.
"Nobody knew of such a thing in the literature, but I sort of vaguely remembered that there was this protein thing called 'green fluorescent protein,'" Tsien says.
The protein came from a type of jellyfish and had been purified and described by Shimomura in the 1960s. It also glowed green when exposed to ultraviolet light.
Both Tsien and Chalfie tried inserting the gene that produced the protein into cells. No one knew if the technique would work, Tsien says, but "the amazing thing is that nature suddenly smiled."
The gene worked beautifully in bacteria, worms and lots of other creatures. Under ultraviolet light, it made proteins in the cell glow a ghostly shade of green. Thousands of researchers worldwide now use it to track proteins; they can watch cancer cells or viruses multiply and spread.
Tsien, Chalfie and Shimomura all got telephone calls from the Swedish Academy of Sciences early this morning.
Chalfie says he slept through his call. At a news conference later, he explained that he'd accidentally set his phone to ring very softly. When he got out of bed, though, he remembered it was the day the Nobel Prize in chemistry was to be announced.
"So I decided to find out who the schnook was that won it this year, so I opened up my laptop and found out that I was the schnook," Chalfie says. "The other two people are very good scientists."
Chalfie's research group was the first to insert the gene that produces the green florescent protein into another cell.
Tsien expanded the technique, creating an entire toolbox of glowing genes. He tinkered with the gene, creating dozens of new versions that glow in many colors. This allows researchers to tag different proteins with distinctive colors and observe their interactions.
"This is a practical Nobel Prize. This is something that has transformed medical research," says John Frangioni of Harvard Medical School.
"When we're able to cure terrible human diseases such as cancer and neurologic diseases, we're going to be able to trace that back to research that at some point used these fluorescent proteins," Frangioni says.
Tsien was thinking that maybe it was time to stop working on florescent proteins and move on to something new. But he says he recently discovered something else about them that's worth pursuing.
"The science calls," he says, "I can't quite punt this one away."