The Path from Jellyfish to Medical Advances

Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., Director, National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Google comment

October 9, 2008

The discovery and development of green fluorescent protein (GFP) recognized by this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry exemplifies the interactions between different fields of science and different sources of funding in bringing about research advances of great importance. GFP, which glows green in response to blue light, is part of the fabric of modern cell biology. Linking the gene encoding GFP to essentially any gene of interest makes the target visible within cells and tissues.

GFP was first purified from jellyfish by biochemist Osamu Shimomura in 1962 in work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The gene encoding GFP was subsequently isolated in mid-1985 by biochemist Douglas Prasher with support from the American Cancer Society. He shared this gene with both Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien upon request. Martin Chalfie, a neurobiologist supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was interested in mapping cells in the nervous system of the model organism C. elegans and realized that GFP could be a powerful tool. He discovered that when the GFP gene was expressed in a variety of organisms, including bacteria and C. elegans, functional GFP was produced without the need for any additional components present in jellyfish. This property is key to the broad applicability of GFP in cell biology.

Roger Tsien, a chemist, was also interested in fluorescent probes for cell biological studies. Having previously been supported by NIH and NSF, Tsien’s initial studies of GFP were supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and NSF. He further characterized the basis for the green fluorescence and applied protein engineering methods to produce a vast collection of variant fluorescent proteins with different colors and other properties that have greatly expanded the power of these proteins for detailed cell biological and other studies. His laboratory continues to develop this technology to the present day and thousands of laboratories around the world now rely on GFP and its cousins as essential tools for the research.

Future disease treatments under development would not have been possible without this wonderful gift from the sea and the range of scientists from different fields who uncovered it and converted it into a tool nearly as fundamental for modern research as the microscope.

Editor’s note: The gene encoding GFP was isolated by Douglas Prasher in 1992, not in 1985 as this article states. (Reference: Prasher DC et al. Primary structure of the Aequorea victoria green-fluorescent protein. Gene 1992 Feb 15;111(2):229-33.)