Work that began off a dock in Friday Harbor, Wash., more than 40 years ago led to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last week.
The prize went to three scientists for their work on "green fluorescent protein," or "GFP" for short. This protein gives some jellyfish their ethereal glow, and these chemists harnessed this ability to watch the inner workings of cells. One prize recipient is Osamu Shimomura, who originally extracted the protein from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, a species found along the west coast of North America.
In 1961 Shimomura, then a researcher at Princeton, spent the summer at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. As a chemist, he was interested in bioluminescence, the property of molecules to, through a chemical reaction, emit light. The goal that summer was to extract the bioluminescent substance from Aequorea. As he tells it, the jellyfish were abundant off the dock outside the lab, and twice a day he and his colleagues had only to dip their nets in the water as the tide brought in "a constant stream" of jellyfish.
The researchers had expected the jellyfish molecule to be similar chemically to that found in fireflies, and so straightforward to extract. But after a few days, they were stumped. Shimomura spent the impasse on a rowboat, thinking about the problem in a scene of bygone tranquility.I often meditated on a drifting rowboat under the clear summer sky. Friday Harbor in summer, at that time, was quiet and peaceful, differing from the present-day scene that is almost saturated with busy pleasure boats and noisy seaplanes. A rowboat always has the right of way over one with a motor so nobody disturbed my drifting vessel; even large ferries saved me a wide berth. Thus, meditation afloat was safe, but if I fell asleep and the boat was carried away by the tidal current, then I had to row for a long time to get back to the Lab.
Shimomura had his breakthrough idea out on the rowboat, and back in the lab he managed to isolate the light-emitting substance. On the dock, they intensified their jellyfish collection, even recruiting children, who were paid a penny per jellyfish. At the end of the summer they had collected 10,000 jellyfish, which yielded a modest 5 mg of the light-emitting substance.
With time, it unleashed a revolution. The gene making GFP was identified, inserted into other organisms, and tinkered with to give different colors. Scientists now routinely attach GFP to any molecule they are interested in, and this fluorescent garnish allows them to track which genes are turned on, how proteins are shuttled around the cell, and how they interact with each other.
Today a sculpture of the molecular structure of GFP stands on the grounds of Friday Harbor Laboratories.