BU Prof Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry
MED’s Shimomura discovered what makes jellyfish glow
It took more than 30 years for Osamu Shimomura to realize that his research on jellyfish would revolutionize the world of biology and another 14 for the Nobel Prize committee to recognize his contribution. Yesterday, after learning that his discovery of luminescent proteins in jellyfish had won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, he told reporters what he learned from the experience.
“If you find an interesting subject, go study it,” he says. “Don’t stop. There is difficulty in any research — don’t give up until you overcome that.”
Shimomura, a School of Medicine adjunct professor of physiology and a senior scientist emeritus at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., was one of three winners of this year’s chemistry prize. The other winners were Martin Chalfie of Columbia University and Roger Y. Tsien of the University of California, San Diego, both recognized for pioneering cellular research techniques that use the proteins Shimomura identified. The three will share the $1.4 million prize, which is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Shimomura is credited with the discovery of green fluorescent protein, or GFP, which he observed in 1962 in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, found off the west coast of North America. James Head, a MED professor of physiology and biophysics, recalls Shimomura’s stories of collecting the jellyfish — Shimomura began his research with 10,000 specimens — in Washington state.
“He and his wife used to spend summers at Friday Harbor and catch bucket after bucket of jellyfish,” says Head, who collaborated with Shimomura on research into the behaviors and uses of aequorin, another fluorescent protein. “In those early days, he would purify the protein directly from the jellyfish, getting small amounts of protein from bucketfuls.”
But although Shimomura pursued his studies of GFP for years, he said yesterday that he didn’t realize the potential applications of his work until 1994, when Chalfie’s research emerged. In an organism, GFP can be fused to proteins of interest to scientists, with minor effects on the organism’s behavior. Researchers can then observe the locations and movements of the studied proteins by monitoring the GFP, which remains fluorescent.
“This protein has become one of the most important tools used in contemporary bioscience,” according to yesterday’s announcement of the prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “With the aid of GFP, researchers have developed ways to watch processes that were previously invisible, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or how cancer cells spread.”
“These discoveries were seminal and decades ahead of their time,” says Gary Borisy, director and chief executive officer of the Marine Biological Laboratory. “They really have ushered in a revolution in cell biology.”
Since then, newer techniques have emerged, such as Tsien’s research into GFP mutations that create fluorescence in various colors, which allows researchers to track different cellular processes in one organism.
“Researchers can follow the fate of various cells with the help of GFP: nerve cell damage during Alzheimer’s disease or how insulin-producing beta cells are created in the pancreas of a growing embryo,” reads the prize announcement. “In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colors.”
Shimomura, who earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Nagoya University in 1960 and began studying bioluminescence there before coming to America and joining a research team at Princeton University, says he never expected his work to change the world of cell biology.
“My subject was just discovery of a product,” he says. “I’m surprised. And I’m happy.”
Jessica Ullian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments