In the beginning...

Osamu Shimomura of Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, MA, USA; Martin Chalfie of Columbia University, New York, NY, USA, and Roger Y. Tsien of the University of California, San Diego, CA, USA were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of Green Florescent Protein from jellyfish, GFP.

Let there be light

Osamu Shimomura isolated GFP from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which lives off the west coast of North America. GFP glows bright green under ultraviolet light.

Divided the light from the darkness

Martin Chalfie demonstrated the value of GFP as a luminescent protein tag. In one of his first experiments, he tagged six individual cells in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with GFP. While the discovery of the protein was indeed important, Chalfie made the enormous mental leap that took GFP from being a nifty protein to being one of the most important biological tools in use today.

Roger Y. Tsien contributed to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces. He also extended the color palette beyond green (by mutating the gene very subtly so the emitted wavelength of light is slightly different, which means it’s a different color,) allowing researchers to give various proteins and cells different colors. This enables scientists to follow several different biological processes at the same time.

Lights in the firmament of the heaven

One of the really useful things about GFP is that it fluoresces in living cells, thus allowing scientists to study cells while they are still alive. Most other microscopic tools are predicated on the cell being dead, fixed with formaldehyde, and the cell membrane made permeable with a detergent. This denatures all the proteins in the cell and changes the morphology of many of the cell structures.

In our image, after our likeness

It must be noted by this bitter little polymath that the snooty, parochial Swedes don’t yet consider American scientists to be “too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue,” as they erroneously believe American writers are, according to the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl.

TK Kenyon

Author of RABID: A Novel, a novel about Catholicism, evil, and GFP-tagged rabiesviruses, and CALLOUS: A Novel, a story about free will, neuroscience, the nature of memory, and the End of Days.