STOCKHOLM | Two Americans and a U.S.-based Japanese scientist won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for research on a glowing jellyfish protein that revolutionized the ability to study disease and normal development in living organisms.
Japan’s Osamu Shimomura and Americans Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien shared the prize for discovering and developing green fluorescent protein, or GFP, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Researchers worldwide now use GFP to track such processes as the development of brain cells, the growth of tumors and the spread of cancer cells. It has let them study nerve cell damage from Alzheimer’s disease and see how insulin-producing beta cells arise in the pancreas of a growing embryo.
The academy compared the impact of GFP on science to the invention of the microscope. For the past decade, the academy said, the protein has been “a guiding star for biochemists, biologists, medical scientists and other researchers.”
When exposed to ultraviolet light, the protein glows green. So it can act as a tracer to expose the movements of other, invisible proteins it is attached to as they go about their business. It can also be used to mark particular cells in a tissue and show when and where particular genes turn on and off.
Mr. Tsien developed GFP-like proteins that produced a variety of colors so that multiple proteins or cells can be followed simultaneously.
“In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colors,” the Nobel citation said. The experiment was called the “brainbow.”
Mr. Shimomura and a colleague found GFP in material they extracted from about 10,000 jellyfish they had recovered off the coast of Washington state. They reported in 1962 that it glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.
Some 30 years later, Mr. Chalfie showed that the GFP gene could make individual nerve cells in a tiny worm glow bright green. Mr. Tsien later extended the scientific palette to a variety of colors.
Mr. Shimomura, 80, works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and the Boston University Medical School.
Mr. Chalfie, 61, is a professor at Columbia University in New York, while Mr. Tsien, 56, is a professor at the University of California at San Diego.
The trio will split the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) award.
The winners of the Nobel prizes in medicine and physics were presented earlier this week. The prizes for literature, peace and economics are expected to be announced Thursday, Friday and Monday.