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Golden Goose Award Goes to MED Professor Emeritus

Nobel Prize winner honored for jellyfish research

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Professor Osamu Shimomura, Boston University School of Medicine BUSM professor emeritus, Nobel Prize winner, jellyfish research, green fluorescent protein GFP

“I believe the study of basic science is important, and searching for truth in nature is most important,” says Osamu Shimomura, a Nobel laureate and a MED professor emeritus. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were trying to find an algorithm to rank web pages, and they wound up building the world’s most powerful search engine. Biologist Alexander Fleming neglected to clean his lab before going on vacation, and returned to find the bacteria he had been culturing killed by a fast-growing mold soon to be known as penicillin.

The Golden Goose Awards are the brainchild of Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and founded by eight organizations (including the Association of American Universities and the Science Coalition) this year to celebrate the profound discoveries from seemingly odd or obscure federally funded research. Osamu Shimomura (Hon.’10), a Nobel Prize–winning chemist and a School of Medicine professor emeritus of physiology, along with Martin Chalfie, chair of Columbia University’s department of biological sciences, and Roger Y. Tsien, a University of California, San Diego, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, received one of the three awards in this inaugural year for his research on the green fluorescent protein, or GFP, in jellyfish.

Shimomura, a former senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., was one of three winners of the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery of GFP in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. He shared the $1.4 million award with Chalfie and Tsien, who pioneered cellular research techniques using the proteins identified by Shimomura.

GFP glows green when exposed to ultraviolet light, making it an ideal marker to help researchers study internal biological processes like the development of brain cells, the spread of cancer cells, and the growth of tumor cells. Research made possible by GFP’s unusual powers has helped scientists better understand brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, improve cancer diagnosis and treatment, and detect poisons in drinking water.

“I have not tried nor intended to discover a glowing marker that proved so helpful to medicine,” Shimomura said in a lecture at BU in 2009. “It is a good example of showing the importance of basic research that has no practical value.”

Shimomura disputes any suggestion that his research was obscure, adding that the National Science Foundation supported his research for 35 years.

“I hope the Golden Goose Award will significantly promote the interest of young students in basic science, even if it is not connected with any application or use,” says Shimomura. “I believe the study of basic science is important, and searching for truth in nature is most important.”

The Golden Goose Award is supported by a bipartisan group of members of Congress. Its name is derived from the Golden Fleece Awards issued from 1975 to 1988 by Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisc.), who cited federally funded research grants as examples of government waste. Paradoxically, some of Proxmire’s targets were extremely rewarding.

“The point of this award is that no one can predict where basic research will take us, thus the reason to support it,” says Karen Antman, dean of the School of Medicine and provost of the Medical Campus. “Dr. Shimomura’s research on the fluorescence of jellyfish has transformed biomedical research. The investment in Dr. Shimomura’s research is a fraction of the savings using the new more efficient fluorescent tagging now possible.”

This year’s other Golden Goose awardees were physicist Charles Townes, a 1964 Nobel Prize winner whose work led to the invention of laser technology, which at the time had no known application, and Eugene White, Rodney White, Della Roy, and the late Jon Weber, whose study of tropical coral led to the development of an ideal bone graft material commonly used in today’s surgeries.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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