A UC San Diego pharmacologist and two other U.S.-based scientists won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for their development of a green fluorescent protein from jellyfish that has provided researchers their first new window into the workings of the cell since the development of the microscope.Roger Y. Tsien, 56, of UC San Diego; Martin Chalfie, 61, of Columbia University; and Osamu Shimomura, 80, a Japanese-born researcher who works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., will share the $1.4-million prize for developing the protein that the Nobel committee called "a guiding star for biochemists, biologists, medical scientists and other researchers."
The Path from Jellyfish to Medical Advances
The discovery and development of green fluorescent protein (GFP) recognized by this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry exemplifies the interactions between different fields of science and different sources of funding in bringing about research advances of great importance. GFP, which glows green in response to blue light, is part of the fabric of modern cell biology. Linking the gene encoding GFP to essentially any gene of interest makes the target visible within cells and tissues.
GFP was first purified from jellyfish by biochemist Osamu Shimomura in 1962 in work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The gene encoding GFP was subsequently isolated in mid-1985 by biochemist Douglas Prasher with support from the American Cancer Society. He shared this gene with both Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien upon request. Martin Chalfie, a neurobiologist supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was interested in mapping cells in the nervous system of the model organism C. elegans and realized that GFP could be a powerful tool. He discovered that when the GFP gene was expressed in a variety of organisms, including bacteria and C. elegans, functional GFP was produced without the need for any additional components present in jellyfish. This property is key to the broad applicability of GFP in cell biology.
Roger Tsien, a chemist, was also interested in fluorescent probes for cell biological studies. Having previously been supported by NIH and NSF, Tsien’s initial studies of GFP were supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and NSF. He further characterized the basis for the green fluorescence and applied protein engineering methods to produce a vast collection of variant fluorescent proteins with different colors and other properties that have greatly expanded the power of these proteins for detailed cell biological and other studies. His laboratory continues to develop this technology to the present day and thousands of laboratories around the world now rely on GFP and its cousins as essential tools for the research.
Future disease treatments under development would not have been possible without this wonderful gift from the sea and the range of scientists from different fields who uncovered it and converted it into a tool nearly as fundamental for modern research as the microscope.
List of recent Nobel Prize in chemistry winners
Recent winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and their research, according to the Nobel Foundation:
_ 2008: Osamu Shimomura, Japan, and Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien, United States, for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.
_ 2007: Gerhard Ertl, Germany, for studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces, research that has advanced the understanding of why the ozone layer is thinning, how fuel cells work and even why iron rusts.
_ 2006: Roger D. Kornberg, United States, for work on how information stored within a gene is copied and transferred to the parts of cells that produce proteins.
_ 2005: Yves Chauvin, France, and Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock, United States, for their work and exploration of metathesis.
_ 2004: Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, Israel, and Irwin Rose, United States, for their work in how cells break down.
_ 2003: Peter Agre and Roderick MacKinnon, United States, for their research on how key materials enter or leave cells in the body and their discoveries concerning tiny pores called "channels" on the surface of cells.
_ 2002: John B. Fenn, United States, Koichi Tanaka, Japan, and Kurt Wuethrich, Switzerland, for developing methods used in identifying and analyzing large biological molecules.
_ 2001: William S. Knowles and K. Barry Sharpless, United States, and Ryoji Noyori, Japan, for showing how to better control chemical reactions, paving the way for drugs to treat heart ailments and Parkinson's disease.
_ 2000: Alan J. Heeger and Alan G. MacDiarmid, United States, and Hideki Shirakawa, Japan, for the discovery that plastic conducts electricity and for the development of conductive polymers.
_ 1999: Ahmed H. Zewail, United States, for pioneering the investigation of fundamental chemical reactions, using ultra-short laser flashes, on the time scale on which the reactions actually occur.
_ 1998: Walter Kohn, United States, for the development of density-functional theory in the 1960s that simplifies the mathematical description of the bonding between atoms that make up molecules, and John Pople, Britain, for developing computer techniques to test the chemical structure and details of matter.