Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

 
I'm not a big fan of giving out Nobel Prizes for technological achievements although I do recognize that some of them are noteworthy. This one goes too far in the direction of technology, in my opinion. The technique is useful and has led to many advances in the field but I don't think it's Nobel Prize work.

There were many other worthwhile candidates who made significant advances in the study of basic science, leading to a direct contribution to our understanding of how nature works. None of the names commonly discussed on the science blogs got the prize.

The Chemistry prize was announced today: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008. Here's the press release from the Nobel Prize website.
8 October 2008

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2008 jointly to

Osamu Shimomura, Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, MA, USA and Boston University Medical School, MA, USA,

Martin Chalfie, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

and

Roger Y. Tsien, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA

"for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP".

Glowing proteins – a guiding star for biochemistry

The remarkable brightly glowing green fluorescent protein, GFP, was first observed in the beautiful jellyfish, Aequorea victoria in 1962. Since then, this protein has become one of the most important tools used in contemporary bioscience. With the aid of GFP, researchers have developed ways to watch processes that were previously invisible, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or how cancer cells spread.

Tens of thousands of different proteins reside in a living organism, controlling important chemical processes in minute detail. If this protein machinery malfunctions, illness and disease often follow. That is why it has been imperative for bioscience to map the role of different proteins in the body.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry rewards the initial discovery of GFP and a series of important developments which have led to its use as a tagging tool in bioscience. 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 tagged proteins.

Researchers can also follow the fate of various cells with the help of GFP: nerve cell damage during Alzheimer's disease or how insulin-producing beta cells are created in the pancreas of a growing embryo. In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colours.

The story behind the discovery of GFP is one with the three Nobel Prize Laureates in the leading roles:

Osamu 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.

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

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


[Photo Credit: GFP Glowing Genes]

9 comments :

  1. So, the guy you purified and characterized protein got the prize.

    Then the guy who realized the potential of GFP fusions, did the cloning and sequencing, then lost funding (obviously because NIH peer review repeatedly pointed to how irrelevant to health and generally not useful this research is), was denied tenure and forced out of academic science DID NOT get the prize. Instead, the already tenured guy who recieved his clone and had the money to push forward and demonstrate usefullness of the approach got the prize.

    Finally, a guy who set up a factory to make mutants of every conceivable color after the fundamental ideas were worked out also got the prize.

    Gosh, I feel so sorry for Douglas Prasher!

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  2. "None of the names commonly discussed on the science blogs got the prize."

    What? I've been writing my picks for three years, and every year I've listed GFP (along with Shimomura, Chalfie, Tsien and Prasher - who didn't get it). I didn't think that it would win, due to GFP's weird history (as pointed out by dk), but I do believe that Shimomura and Tsien deserve it.

    Just like RNAi, GFP was a critical advance in the history of cell biology. The power that GFP gave scientists to monitor the behavior of proteins in vivo has led to a revolution in microscopy.

    dk, go and read Tsien's paper where he uses an in vitro selection strategy to evolve dsRed
    into a panoply of colored fluorescent proteins. It's one of the cleverest approaches I've ever read.

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  3. go and read Tsien's paper where he uses an in vitro selection strategy to evolve dsRed into a panoply of colored fluorescent proteins. It's one of the cleverest approaches I've ever read.

    Maybe a reference? I am aware of the brute force approach using FACS sorting. What's clever about it???

    Personally, I am MUCH MORE impressed with the in vivo approach using somatic hypermutation. But, of course, in practice it did not produce anywhere near the variety that's come out of libraries in E.coli. (Plus, I think it's a very good bet that it was Tsien himself who came with this very elegant idea).

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  4. I'm not a big fan of giving out Nobel Prizes for technological achievements although I do recognize that some of them are noteworthy. This one goes too far in the direction of technology, in my opinion. The technique is useful and has led to many advances in the field but I don't think it's Nobel Prize work.

    So Prof. Moran would have objected to the award of the Nobel Prize in physics to William Shockley for the invention of the transistor.

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  5. A genetically engineered glowing pig's nose is more than worthy of the Nobel Prize.

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  6. I sort of agree with Larry's sentiment that giving so many prizes for technological advances or blind discoveries is a bit lame. For medicine, you would have to go back to 2004 to find a winner that made phenomenal contributions to developing cell and molecular biology as a whole, for someone who was really a great biologist as opposed to the right place, right time guy or strong technological manipulator.

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  7. For more info on Prasher, go here:
    "Gene's discoverer Left Out of Nobel Prize"

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95545761

    http://www.conncoll.edu/ccacad/zimmer/GFP-ww/prasher.html

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  8. I think that those methods are just so cool. I think good method is like "million facts", and i respect them even more than theories. (Although methods off course are build on theories...) They give us chanse to learn. And I think that is even more important than know much.

    I think this invention is soooooo impressive.

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  9. While I realize that a significant component of the entire selection process has to be political, I am still very disheartened that Marty Chalfie was selected in favour of Doug Prasher. From my perspective as a researcher who has followed this technology since the 1992 paper in Gene that reported the cloning, it was Prasher all the way. I think Roger Tsien is brilliant and successful, but I cannot help but wonder what kind of lobbying Chalfie did.

    Of course I am simultaneously pleased the the committee did not select Robert Gallo for the Physiology & Medicine prize this year, and I assume that Gallo lobbied heavily since the first paper describing the HIV virus was published.

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