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Fluorescent proteins and medicine

Fluorescent proteins are changing the world. Page through any modern scientific journal and it’s impossible to miss the vibrant images of fluorescent proteins. Bright, colorful photographs not only liven-up scholarly journals, but they also serve as invaluable tools to track HIV, to design chickens that are resistant to bird flu and to confirm the existence of cancerous stem cells. Each day, fluorescent proteins initially extracted from jellyfish and other marine organisms illuminate the inner workings of diseases, increasing our knowledge of them and providing new avenues in the search for their cures.

It is important to realize that these incredibly useful and now very common tools might not have been found if it were not for decades of basic research funded by the US government — research that would probably not be funded by most current funding agencies as the research would be deemed too fundamental in nature and not applied enough to qualify for funding. This fundamental research that formed the basis for all the fluorescent protein based technologies, such as super-resolution microscopy and even optogenetics, was performed by Osamu Shimomura.

Aequorea victoria emitting fluorescent light. Image credit: This photo has been used courtesy of Steven Haddock.
Aequorea victoria emitting fluorescent light. Image credit: This photo has been used courtesy of Steven Haddock.

While a research scientist at Princeton University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Shimomura spent more than 40 years trying to understand the chemistry responsible for the emission of the green light in A. victoria, and in the process, he caught more than a million jellyfish. Every summer for more than twenty years, Shimomura and his family would make the 3,000-mile drive from Princeton, New Jersey, to the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor laboratory, where they would spend the summer days catching crystal jellyfish from the side of the pier. For 20 well-funded years at Princeton and an additional 20 years at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Shimomura spent his days, and sometimes his nights, unraveling the mysteries of the jellyfish’s glow.

The crystal jellyfish was the first organism known to use one protein to make light, aequorin, and another to change the color of this light, GFP. There was no precedence in the scientific literature for this type of bioluminescence, and so Shimomura had to break new ground. Additionally it was laborious and painstaking work to isolate even the smallest quantities of GFP. Fortunately Shimomura had both funding and a purist’s fascination with bioluminescence to unlock the secrets of GFP.

Although he was the first to discover GFP and isolate it, he was not interested in the applications of this protein. Doug Prascher, Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien were responsible for ensuring that the green fluorescent protein from crystal jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, has been used in millions of experiments all around the world. They took the next step, but without Shimomura’s first essential step there may have been no flourescent future.

Featured image: Aequorea victoria by Mnolf (Photo taken in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, CA, USA). CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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