In 1960, Osamu Shimomura, wasn't trying to revolutionize science, he was a young researcher with a simple question: What made the crystal jelly, Aequorea victoria, glow bright green when agitated?
When Shimomura isolated and described a unique glowing protein, green fluorescent protein (GFP), he had no way of knowing the breakthrough it would spark over 20 years later.
In the mid 1980s, Martin Chalfie of Columbia University attended a lecture that happened to mention GFP. Chalfie got so excited, he stopped listening to the lecture and starred dreaming up ways he could use this protein to solve a problem in his own research.
Chalfie was working with the transparent roundworm, C. elegans, attempting to study where certain genes were expressed in the worm. Finding genes in an organism's DNA was relatively straightforward, but figuring out what the gene was responsible for, and where the gene was expressed was a serious challenge. GFP gave Chalfie a way to light up exactly where a gene was being expressed.
This was a huge breakthrough for biological and medical research, but GFP had limitations. It faded quickly, and it only came in one color. Roger Tsien, a biochemist UC San Diego, took GFP and developed new variations that were brighter and glowed in a rainbow of colors. Having an array colors of GFP allowed researchers to observe multiple processes at the same time, with higher precision than ever before.
Researchers at UC San Diego watched breast cancer cells migrate in real time. Scientists at UC Davis and Mount Sinai School of Medicine captured video of HIV spreading between immune cells. Researchers at Harvard mapped individual neurons of mouse brains, creating an iconic image known as the "brainbow."
Shimomura, Chalfie and Tsien shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008. While Nobel Prizes often go to research that is far removed from any practical application, the discovery of GFP has led to real breakthroughs on some of humanity's most challenging diseases. And none of this would have been possible without a curious young researcher who was free to explore a simple question about a small, glowing jellyfish.
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