This week, the New York Times published a nice profile on Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie at Columbia University. Chalfie shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for his work on an amazing protein found in jellyfish called Green Fluorescent Protein, or GFP. The article is a great reminder of how very basic research on jellyfish and worms, of all things, yields invaluable scientific tools and knowledge.
GFP has the natural property of absorbing invisible ultraviolet light and producing green light - a discovery made in 1961 by Osamu Shimomura (who also shared the 2008 Nobel Award with Roger Tsien and Chalfie).
Chalfie's "aha" moment, in 1989 at a department seminar, was a recognition that the light-producing properties of GFP could be harnessed as a sort of molecular flashlight.
It works like this: the gene for GFP is inserted alongside a gene, let's say, that encodes a protein involved in the formation of the neural system. GFP "tags" the protein of interest, allowing it to be followed in real time inside living cells, with UV light as the trigger. It's an incredibly powerful technique for revealing how and when genes are turned on, and how proteins move inside the cell.
In Chalfie's case, he uses the tiny soil worm C. elegans as a model for human neuron development. C. elegans and the GFP technique have proven invaluable for studies in areas as diverse as neuroscience, organ development, and cancer.
Below is a nice 10-minute video from BBC News, telling the GFP story. It includes a few clips of live, green worms.
For the technically inclined, video of Chalfie's Nobel acceptance speech is here. The 2009 Nobel awards will be given in early October.