Kathy Kieva ENL 641 - Technical & Scientific Journalism Chris Eisenhart 2/26/09 Audience: Educated, interested (not attentive) in science

in general but not scientists Publication: Boston Globe Word count: 1181

50,000 Jellyfish Lead to Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Osamu Shimomura spent the summer of 1961 in Friday Harbor, north of Seattle, WA, cutting off the edges of about 50,000 jellyfish and squeezing them through a filter to get what he called "squeezate." He probably couldn't have imagined that forty-seven years later he'd receive a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his efforts, which eventually led to his discovery of green fluorescent protein, or GFP, an exciting new tool for scientists seeking to understand the inner workings of active cells and the mechanism of gene expression. Shimomura, who is Professor emeritus at Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, and Boston University Medical School, shares this year's prize with Martin Chalfie, the Chairman of the Biology Department at Columbia University, who paved the way for expressing GFP's fluorescent properties in bacteria and worms, and Roger Tsien, a professor of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of California, San Diego, who expanded the palette of colors available to researchers. Chalfie’s research focused on the millimeter-long transparent roundworm known as Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans. He first heard about green fluorescent protein, or GFP, at a seminar in 1988 and immediately grasped the implications of using a protein that fluoresces bright green when exposed to blue or UV light. "I admit I completely ignored the rest of the seminar," he said in a Nobel interview. "All I could think of was that this would be a wonderful tool for visualizing life." Tsien took the research further by modifying the gene that makes GFP to create an artist's palette of colors that glow longer and with more intensity than the original green. What made GFP different, and what excited researchers like Chalfie so much, was the fact that GFP was a "stand-alone" protein. In other words, no other chemical or protein or enzyme was required to create the bioluminescent effect, nor is there a need to continually reenergize the protein as is the case in most other bioluminescent organisms like the firefly. This characteristic meant that GFP could be used to study how genes are expressed and where proteins operate in the cell without introducing additional biological chemicals that may adversely affect cell function. Further, says Chalfie, "GFP is heritable, relatively non-invasive, small and monomeric, and visible in living tissue," making the ideal tracer protein for studying the dynamic processes within a cell. From Jellyfish to GFP Having completed his studies in post-World War II Japan, Shimomura was recruited to work at Princeton by Dr. Frank Johnson. Their research originally focused on the jellyfish

Aequorea victoria, which glowed green around its outer rim when agitated, and they were eventually able to isolate the bioluminescent protein aequorin. Contrary to expectation, however, Shimomura was surprised to find that aequorin glows blue, not green. They were missing some crucial step. What was missing, Shimomura found, was his ability to transcend existing scientific knowledge regarding bioluminescence in nature. Common belief among scientists at that time was that bioluminescence is a complex biochemical process requiring at least two different chemicals, one that produces the light, generically called "luciferin," and the one that drives the chemical reaction, an enzyme called "luciferase." If either chemical is missing, no bioluminescence. “I was convinced that the cause of our failure was the luciferin hypothesis that dominated our minds,” Shimomura said in his Nobel lecture. “I did a lot of soul searching, trying to find what was missing in my experiment.” That soul searching led to a rift with Johnson, who continued to work on the luciferin angle while Shimomura shifted his attention to the "green protein" that he and Johnson had described in their aequorin paper as being “slightly greenish in sunlight, yellowish in the light from a light bulb and fluorescent green in UV light.” What he found was that the within the protein there is a chemical group of amino acids that absorb and emit light called a chromophore. When the aequorin in the jellyfish emits blue light, it excites the GFP chromophore, which in turn emits green light. What Shimomura found was that he could eliminate the need for aequorin altogether by simply shining blue or UV light directly on the GFP, causing it to glow green. Glowing Bacteria and Worms Almost thirty years after Shimomura and Johnson first described GFP, the gene for the protein was discovered, sequenced and cloned by Dr. Douglas Prasher, working then at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Unfortunately his grant funding ran out before he could successfully express the gene in bacteria and demonstrate that GFP could serve as a tracer molecule in living cells. He sent the results of his work to Chalfie and Tsien, both of whom had contacted Prasher independently, unbeknownst to the other. It was Chalfie and his team who discovered that the gene Prasher sequenced was off by 20 base pairs, resulting in incorrect folding of the protein and thus inhibiting its fluorescent abilities. Once they had the correct sequence, it didn't take long to express the gene in E. coli bacteria and obtain the signature green glow from the bacteria. Using DNA technology, Chalfie and his team then inserted the gene for GFP behind a promoter that is active in six touch receptor neurons in a mature C. elegans worm and allowed it to reproduce. Sure enough, they were able to visualize those touch receptor neurons in the offspring of that mature worm - they were glowing bright green. Creating Rainbows and “Brainbows” Tsien wasn't content with green. By identifying the crystal structure of GFP, he and his team were able to re-engineer the protein to fluoresce in a wide range of colors by exchanging various amino acids in different parts of GFP. By experimenting with the amino acid composition, Tsien was able to develop new variants of GFP in colors ranging across the spectrum with such mouth-watering names as mHoneydew (m for "mutant"), mStrawberry, mGrape1 and MGrape2, and mPlum. Using different colors, researchers can now selectively tag proteins in cells and follow different proteins as they fluoresce in shades of blue, green, yellow,

orange and red. For example, researchers at the Harvard Brain Center have created transgenic mice with fluorescent multicolored neurons in their brains, creating what they call a "brainbow" that allows them to distinguish between individual neurons. With this color-coded tool, "researchers will now be able to map the neural circuits of the brain. The individually colored neurons will help define the complex tangle of neurons that comprise the brain and nervous system. By creating a wiring diagram of the brain, researchers hope to help identify the defective wiring found in neurodegenerative diseases such as Altzheimer's and Parkinson's disease." (http://www.conncoll.edu/ccacad/zimmer/GFP-ww/cooluses0.html) And the Prize Goes To… It was basic curiosity about what made a particular species of jellyfish glow that started Shimomura on the path to the discovery of GFP. From tracking the growth of cancer cells and the path of the HIV virus to the ability to identify individual neurons in the brain and trace gene expression, GFP is now providing researchers with an unprecedented tool for visualizing life in all its complexity.

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