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BU Prof Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

MED’s Shimomura discovered what makes jellyfish glow


Osamu Shimomura was one of three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry. Photo courtesy of the Marine Biological Laboratory

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 jullian@bu.edu.


38 Comments on BU Prof Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

  • Dr. Muhammad Khawar Nazir on 10.09.2008 at 8:17 am

    Appreciation to Shimomura

    I really congratulate and appreciate for his great innovative work and new discovery in the field of med science.
    Really inspired and have a high regards for shimomura.

    Keep it up Shimomura,
    Dr. Muhammad Khawar Nazir
    BU Dermatology

  • BU student on 10.09.2008 at 12:13 pm


    So cool! Thank you Professor Shimomura!!!!!

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 8:58 pm

    In retrospect, I can hardly believe I didn’t understand why this was important at the very beginning of the article, even IF I’m not so into bio anymore.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 10:58 pm


  • Anonymous on 10.10.2008 at 2:28 pm


    congratulations! thanks for the motivation.

  • Agnes on 10.12.2008 at 7:28 pm


    Great job!!!
    Thank you so so very much Professor Shimomura.
    My daughter is a BU student.

  • Anonymous on 10.16.2008 at 9:03 pm

    so encouraging..

  • Anonymous on 10.18.2008 at 4:15 pm


    Professor Shimomura,
    omedetou, I am very proud that my son was a graduate of BU.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2008 at 11:06 am

    I decided to apply to Graduate School of BU.

  • Mieko Akao on 11.02.2008 at 3:18 pm

    congratulations! Prof Shimomura.
    My Owan jelyfish does’t shine well. Any good Idea?

  • Anonymous on 12.02.2008 at 6:11 pm

    Congratulations Professor Shimomura

    Professor Shimomura,

    Congratulations…once again proving that BU professors are among the very best.

  • scienctific mind on 02.03.2009 at 2:47 pm


    My friends must be feeling proud in BU even though they are in mechanical. Congratulations to Dr. Shimomura.

  • Anonymous on 02.09.2009 at 5:53 am

    Great work Professor 

  • Anonymous on 02.17.2009 at 12:47 pm

    Great advice! Thanks for gathering all that commenting info and sharing it with us!

  • Anonymous on 03.13.2009 at 7:00 am

    prof. Shimomura is doing

    I am delighted that Professor Shimomura extraordinary work is now being recognized around the world. 

  • Anonymous on 03.13.2009 at 7:02 am

    its really great that prof. joining a research team at Princeton University, says he never expected his work to change the world of cell biology. 

  • side on 03.16.2009 at 9:09 pm

    Cool.. Congurulations Professor Shimomura!

  • Anonymous on 03.18.2009 at 5:06 pm

    Congratulation Professor Shimomura for a job very well done indeed. If only more professor’s in today’s American Society would show the amount of sincere passion and dedication as you have over the past 30 years.
    God bless!
    -Mike Smith

  • Michael Stien on 03.20.2009 at 10:43 pm

    With Best Regards..

    Professor Shimomura you are truely an inspiration. Thanks for the motivation………..

  • John Matt on 07.16.2009 at 9:33 am

    I really congratulate and appreciate for his great innovative work and new discovery in the field of med science. Really inspired and have a high regards for shimomura. 

  • Philadelphia Cosmetic Surgeon on 07.21.2009 at 2:16 pm

    Great Accomplishment

    Congratulations Prof. Shimomura! Your discovery is very important to Science. You are very much worthy for the award. 

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  • Alban on 11.14.2009 at 8:18 am

    Congratulations Professor Shimomura

    Congratulations! Thanks for this great article.

  • Blu ray Ripper on 12.02.2009 at 2:53 am

    its nice when people that actually deserved a nobel prize got it. This year when obama got the prize it really damaged the reputation of the the award. they should have given it to someone who actually did something.

  • Tooley on 12.24.2009 at 8:13 am


    I really congratulate and appreciate for his great innovative work and new discovery in the field of med science. Really inspired!Health questions

  • Anonymous on 03.03.2010 at 12:57 pm

    great work

    nice man. im proud of you!

  • Johnny on 03.22.2010 at 7:15 pm

    Professor, you are a living example to us all! Congratulations on your work. I would love to be able to know this great genius. A big hug and wish you much success yet.

  • Daniel on 05.01.2010 at 5:11 am

    Good advice !

    “If you find an interesting subject, go study it.Don’t stop. There is difficulty in any research — don’t give up until you overcome that.”

    Can’t agree more with that !

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  • Mesothelioma Cancer on 08.27.2010 at 4:11 am

    Thanks Shim

    Shimomura you done a great job, That’s make us proud you give a new idea in the biology.

  • Howie Hubler on 09.20.2010 at 11:28 am


    What an honor, congratulations Osamu Shimomura for his years of hard work. It’s great to see his effort has been both recognized and rewarded.

  • Pauline on 09.21.2010 at 2:51 pm

    Sheer dog-ged determination

    Thats how people like the Professor achieve the amazing things they do. Most of us would give up after a few years but they keep going and that is what makes the so special.

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  • Benjamin on 01.02.2018 at 8:34 am

    I have always admired people like Osamu Shimomura. People who work for their ideas for so many years and do not back down, deserve admiration. I am sure that this is not the first time when a scientist is working on some kind of invention or research works for years, and becomes successful. I was always interested in what motivates people to do the same every day, to believe in their success, to believe that it will help humanity. The Nobel Prize is certainly a worthy reward for people like him.

    I once read an article from british essay writers about one scientist who worked on his discovery more than 65 years, and was recognized only after death. It was some kind of discovery in medicine (now I do not even remember which one), but I remember that it struck me then. It’s very good that we have such hardworking minds that move progress.

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