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Vol. LX, No. 22
October 31, 2008

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Grantees Win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry is shared by two NIH grantees, Dr. Martin Chalfie of Columbia University and Dr. Roger Y. Tsien of the University of California at San Diego. The two researchers share the award with a former NIH grantee, Dr. Osamu Shimomura of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. The three researchers are honored for discovering green fluorescent protein (GFP) in a colorful jellyfish and developing it into a key tool for observing previously invisible processes such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or how cancer cells spread.

By using DNA technology, researchers can now connect GFP to other interesting but otherwise invisible proteins. This glowing marker allows them to watch the movements, positions and interactions of the targeted proteins.

“I am glad that these seminal discoveries were recognized by the Nobel committee. It is imperative for researchers to map and understand the role of different proteins and their interactions real time in the body,” said NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni. “Understanding how this protein machinery malfunctions will increase our knowledge about potential causes of illness and disease and perhaps lead to better treatments.”

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences began supporting the work of Shimomura in 1979 and Chalfie and Tsien in 1982. Over the years, NIGMS has provided more than $18 million in support of the three scientists. In addition, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has provided more than $8 million to support the research of Tsien, who received NINDS’s Javits Award for the work cited by the Nobel committee. Tsien has also received support from the National Eye Institute. Chalfie has also received support from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute on Aging. NIH has provided a total of more than $29 million to the three researchers.

“The discovery and development of GFP was literally a green light for biological research, enabling scientists to quickly visualize gene expression, protein movement and other critical processes with great clarity in living cells,” said NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg. “GFP rapidly became an essential piece of the scientific toolbox, paving the way for an explosion of groundbreaking studies that significantly advanced our understanding of health and disease. It is impossible to understate the impact of these investigators’ work on scientific progress.”

Shimomura first isolated GFP from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which drifts with the currents off the west coast of North America. He discovered that this protein glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.

Chalfie demonstrated the value of GFP as a luminous genetic tag for various biological phenomena. In one of his first experiments, he colored six individual cells in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with the aid of GFP.

Tsien contributed to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces. He also extended the color palette beyond green, allowing researchers to give various proteins and cells different colors. This enables scientists to follow several different biological processes at the same time. NIHRecord Icon

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