WASHINGTON – This year's Nobel Laureates for chemistry don't know why jellyfish came to glow under ultraviolet light.
But they know how to harness that glow – paint with it,almost – so it can someday track a tumor's growth or a virus's path inside a body.
Three U.S. scientists will share the Nobel Prize in chemistry next month for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein,or GFP,that makes jellyfish glow.
Two of them,Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien,were at the Embassy of Sweden Monday to explain how GFP will advance medical research.
“It's a non-invasive way of looking at cells. You get green light back. You don't have to fix the tissue or poke holes in it,” said Chalfie,a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University.
Laureate Osamu Shimomura,professor emeritus at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole,Mass.,was ill and unable to attend. Shimomura first isolated GFP from the crystal jellyfish in 1962. He discovered that the protein glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.
About 27 years after Shimomura's discovery,Chalfie's lab put the GFP gene in bacteria,which made it glow green. His lab also found that the gene could be applied on most living tissues.
“If you wanted to study the AIDS virus and how it travels through an organism's body,you would put the gene in,” Chalfie said. “And as the cells turn green,it would mark where the virus has been.”
In the mid-1990s,Tsien expanded the color palette beyond green,allowing researchers to assign different colors to different cells. He did this by manipulating the pigment molecules inside the protein.
“We can cover the visual spectrum from violet to infrared,” said Tsien,who is a professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in San Diego.
Exploring the redder pigments is important,Tsien said,because the wavelengths of blue and green light can't travel very far through the opaque pinks and reds of a lab mouse's body.
“We can stick red in and get infrared out,” Tsien said. “We're making progress,bit by bit.”
Tsien said GFP is used primarily to study small amounts of cells and tissue and that more research remains before it is applied to humans.
“To put it directly in people would require gene therapy – or transgenic people,” he joked,referring to a species that carries genes from another organism,”which we won't have anytime soon.”
The audience of about 80 laughed.
Princeton's Paul Krugman,a New York Times columnist,the winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences,was also at the discussion. Yoichiro Nambu,the U.S. winner of half the Nobel Prize in physics,was unable to attend.
They will receive their awards in Stockholm Dec. 10 from the Swedish king.