Three U.S.-based scientists won a Nobel Prize Wednesday for turning a glowing green protein from jellyfish into a revolutionary way to watch the tiniest details of life.
Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese citizen who works in the U.S., and Americans Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien will share the $1.4 million chemistry prize for discovering and developing green fluorescent protein, or GFP.
When exposed to ultraviolet light, the protein glows green. It can act as a marker on otherwise invisible proteins within cells to trace them as they go about their business. It can tag individual cells, and it can show when and where particular genes turn on and off.
Researchers worldwide now use GFP to track development of brain cells, tumor growth and the spread of cancer. It has let them study nerve cell damage from Alzheimer's disease and see how insulin-producing beta cells arise in the pancreas of a growing embryo.
In awarding the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy likened the impact of GFP on science to the invention of the microscope. For a decade, the academy said, the protein has been “a guiding star.”
GFP's chemical cousins produce other colors, which let scientists follow multiple cells or proteins simultaneously.
“This is a technology that has literally transformed medical research,” said Dr. John Frangioni, an associate professor of medicine and radiology at Harvard Medical School. “For the first time, scientists could study both genes and proteins in living cells and in living animals.”