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The scientific work that wins a Nobel prize is often hard to understand and difficult to describe. But this year's prize for Chemistry has been awarded to a crowd-pleaser. It goes to three scientists who made things glow in the dark with a jellyfish gene. NPR's Dan Charles explains.

DAN CHARLES: Life, when you look at it really closely, is an intricate dance of proteins inside every cell of our bodies. But you can't see those proteins. They're too tiny. So for decades, scientists have been trying to find a way to make that invisible world visible. Fifteen years ago, Roger Tsien, at the University of California, San Diego, tried to attach chemical dyes to a protein. But it didn't work very well. He thought to himself, what I really need is a gene that makes the protein visible.

Dr. ROGER TSIEN (Scientist): Nobody knew of such a thing in the literature but I sort of vaguely remembered that there was this protein called green fluorescent protein.

CHARLES: It came from a kind of jellyfish. A Japanese researcher named Osamu Shimomura working at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts had purified it and described it. The protein glowed green when exposed to ultraviolet light. Both Tsien and Martin Chalfie at Columbia University tried inserting the gene that produced this green fluorescent protein into cells. Tsien says no one knew if it would work

Mr. TSIEN: And the amazing thing is that nature suddenly smiled.

CHARLES: 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 all over the world now are using it to track proteins. They can watch cancer cells or viruses multiply and spread. And early this morning, Tsien, Chalfie and Osamu Shimomura all got calls from the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Martin Chalfie slept through his call. At a press conference today, he explained he'd set his phone by mistake to ring very softly. When he got out of bed though, he remembered the Nobel prize in Chemistry was announced today.

Dr. MARTIN CALFIE (Scientist): 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. The other two people are very good scientists.

CHARLES: Chalfie's research group was the first to insert the green florescent protein into another cell, but, in the years since, it was Roger Tsien who built a whole toolbox of similar techniques. There are now are dozens of florescent tags, glowing in many colors so biologists can label different proteins and watch how they interact. John Frangioni, who teaches at Harvard Medical School says, it's great that this technique is finally getting recognized.

Prof. JOHN FRANGIONI (Harvard Medical School ): This is a practical Nobel prize, this is something that has transformed medical research. This is, you know, when we're able to cure, you know, 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.

CHARLES: Roger Tsien says he was thinking, maybe it was time to stop working on fluorescent proteins and move on to something new. But then, just recently, he discovered something else about them that he wants to pursue. The science calls, he says and I can't quite punt this one away. Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: And tomorrow, we'll learn who has won the Nobel Prize for literature. If you're a literary buff and a betting man or woman, don't put your money on an American writer taking the prize this year. An American hasn't won since Toni Morrison did in 1993. Add to that, last week the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobels, made it clear he has little use for modern American literature. Horace Engdahl said, the U.S. is too isolated, too insular, they don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. He said, that ignorance is restraining.

And Engdahl's comments could be restraining American odds in at least on big betting house. The British Ladbrokes gives Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates a fighting chance, putting their odds of winning a Nobel around five to one, but they trail several big contenders including front runner, Claudio Magris. Haven't heard of him? He's a novelist and essayist from Italy. Still, if you're in the mood for an even bigger gamble you'll find one more American further down the list, much further down. It's Bob Dylan and his odds are placed at 150 to one. Why he's on the list, we're not sure.

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