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Nobel Laureate Osamu Shimomura (Hon.’10) Dead at 90

MED professor emeritus discovered protein aiding in cancer and other research

Osamu Shimomura never forgot the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. He was a teenager working at a factory there when the brighter-than-the-sun flash flooded through the windows. “We were blinded for about 30 seconds,” he recalled six decades after the 1945 strike. “Then, about 40 seconds after the flash, a loud sound and sudden change of air pressure followed.”

As he made for his home about 16 miles from the epicenter, black rain drizzled on him, darkening his white shirt to a grimy gray. His grandmother scoured him in a bath, possibly saving him, he speculated, from any lingering radiation.

That brush with science’s awesome power to destroy didn’t dissuade Shimomura, who died in Nagasaki October 19 at age 90, from becoming a scientist. In 2008, the BU School of Medicine professor emeritus shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering the green fluorescent protein (GFP) in jellyfish. That year’s other Nobel chemistry winners, Martin Chalfie of Columbia University and Roger Y. Tsien of the University of California, San Diego, pioneered cellular research techniques using the proteins Shimomura had identified.

These “tiny molecular flashlights,” BU President Robert A. Brown said when Shimomura came to BU the following year to read his Nobel presentation, enabled otherwise undoable research about how cancer metastasizes, as well as other studies in fields like ecology and chemistry.

“Dr. Shimomura was a brilliant scientist dedicated to exploring a very fundamental observation that has had a remarkable impact on life science research around the world,” Brown says.

Shimomura was also a former senior scientist at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. After receiving word of his death, the laboratory lowered its flag to honor his memory.

Shimomura holds up a green vile during a lecture

Shimomura lectured at the School of Medicine the year after his Nobel Prize win. Photo by BU Photography

He came to BU in 1982 as a professor of physiology. And at his BU Nobel presentation, the self-effacing scientist quipped that he hadn’t been “a very good professor,” having come to campus only a few times during those years. He was retired from BU when he won the Nobel, and the University immediately conferred emeritus status on him.

Besides his scientific achievements, one other part of his 2009 BU talk stood out for David Atkinson, a MED professor and chair of physiology and biophysics: “He spoke very quietly about Nagasaki. A humble man, yes.” (In an autobiographical essay for the Nobel prize, Shimomura wrote, “The Nagasaki bomb was a different type and far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Even if the use of the Hiroshima bomb was justifiable in order to precipitate an end to the war, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later was clearly a test of new arms. It cannot be justified.”)

Raymond Stephens, a MED professor emeritus of physiology and biophysics, recalls that when his colleague won the Nobel, he saw a photo of the laureate and his family, “standing together on the seashore…collecting nets and buckets in hand. They spent many, many summers there gathering jellyfish. Akemi, his wife and second pair of hands, was always at his side, a true partner in all of his endeavors…There was a deeply human side to him.”

“He was truly a family person,” agrees Osamu Sakai, a MED professor of radiology.

Shimomura made his prize-winning discovery years before his BU tenure and receipt of the Nobel prize. That prize made him “one of a very select group of scientists whose transformative work in biomedical research is recognized” at such a high level, says Karen Antman, dean of MED and provost of the Medical Campus.

“Thanks to his discovery, and the further work of his colleagues, investigators can track protein expression and biological processes such as how cancer cells spread,” she says. “We are grateful for his many contributions to science and for his faculty presence.”

The son of a Japanese army captain, Shimomura lived for part of his childhood in Manchuria, where his father had been stationed during its occupation by Japan in the 1930s. The future Nobel laureate said that having been a lackadaisical student, he was rejected by three colleges before matriculating in 1948 at Nagasaki Pharmacy College, which was forced to relocate to a military barracks when it was destroyed by the bombing.

After graduating, he went to work at Nagoya University, where he also earned a master’s and a PhD. He began studying the light-emitting properties in a species of Japanese crustacean, succeeding in purifying and crystallizing the compound that helped produce the glow.

“Since the end of the war, my life had been dark,” Shimomura wrote in his Nobel essay, “but this gave me hope for my future.” That hope was well-founded, as Princeton University, which was studying luminescent jellyfish, recruited him as a researcher in 1960. There, in 1962, he managed to extract two proteins from the Aequorea victoria jellyfish, found off the waters of Washington state: aequorin and GFP; the latter glows green when exposed to the former.

BU’s 2010 honorary degree recipients

BU’s 2010 honorary degree recipients: Eric Holder (from left), Wafaa El-Sadr, Shimomura, William Coleman, and Edward Albee. Photo by BU Photography

After years of summer trips to Washington—during those trips, he said, he and his colleagues typically harvested 3,000 of the tiny jellyfish a day—he and the team mapped out the workings of the luminescence in the 1970s. He left Princeton after joining the MED faculty.

Shimomura was the recipient of numerous honors. In 2008, he was awarded the Order of Culture, the highest honor given annually by the Emperor of Japan. He was one of three winners of the inaugural Golden Goose Awards in 2012. And in 2013, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Shimomura is survived by his wife and two children. The University bestowed an honorary degree on him in 2010.

BU has one living Nobel laureate, Sheldon Glashow, Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Mathematics and the Sciences, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics.

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Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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