MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA — Osamu Shimomura, a senior scientist emeritus and Corporation member at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), one of the most important tools in contemporary science and medicine for illuminating life at the microscopic level.
Dr. Shimomura shares the prize, which was announced early today in Stockholm, with Martin Chalfie of Columbia University, New York, and Roger Y. Tsien of University of California, San Diego.
Dr. Shimomura was an MBL senior scientist from 1982-2001, prior to his retirement. He first noticed a green fluorescing molecule in the jellyfish Aequorea in 1961, while he was a researcher at Princeton University. He patiently extracted the molecule from 10,000 specimens that he collected in Friday Harbor, Puget Sound, purified it, and identified it as a protein. The protein, Dr. Shimomura reported in 1962, fluoresces green when hit with ultraviolet light. Today, GFP is a guiding star for biochemists, medical scientists, and other researchers. 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.
“GFP technology has revolutionized what we can see at the most fundamental levels of life,” says Gary Borisy, director and chief executive officer of the MBL and a prominent cell biologist. “GFP is revealing, for example, how proteins move and interact in cells. Now that the human genome is sequenced, understanding protein function is one of the greatest scientific and medical challenges of our time. “
The tremendous utility of GFP in probing the inner life of cells and their components was demonstrated by Chalfie, who in 1994 showed how GFP can be used as luminous genetic tag for various biological phenomena. When the gene for GFP is attached to the gene for some protein of interest, then when the cell makes the protein, it also makes the GFP, which “lights up” the protein and allows scientists to observe it. Roger Y. Tsien, a former lecturer in the MBL Neurobiology course, contributed to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces. He also extended the color palette beyond green, allowing researchers to give various proteins and cells different colors. This enables scientists to follow several different biological processes at the same time.
Dr. Shimomura is the 57th scientist affiliated with the MBL since its founding in 1888 to receive the Nobel Prize.
From the time he discovered this “beautiful protein,” Dr. Shimomura says, until 1979, he devoted his research to characterizing GFP, its companion protein in the jellyfish, aequorin, and bioluminescence in general.
“Most of my knowledge came from self-study,” says Dr. Shimomura. “If you find an interesting subject, study it through to the finish. If you confront difficulties, overcome them. Don’t be discouraged. There are always difficulties in research.”
Born in Kyoto, Japan, on August 27, 1928, Osamu Shimomura graduated from Nagasaki College of Pharmacy in 1951 and worked as a research student in Organic Chemistry at the laboratory of Professor Hirata at Nagoya University from 1955 to 1958. He obtained his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Nagoya University in 1960. He was a research biochemist at Princeton University from 1960 to 1982, and is an adjunct professor emeritus at Boston University Medical School.
During Dr. Shimomura’s tenure at the MBL, he was an integral part of the MBL’s research activities, presenting scientific reports in the MBL General Scientific Meetings, authoring articles in the scientific journal based at the MBL, The Biological Bulletin, and serving as an expert advisor on the green fluorescent protein. Shimomura’s wife, Akemi, was also a member of the MBL’s research staff from 1982 to 2001, working as Dr. Shimomura’s research assistant. Dr. Shimomura has been a member of the MBL Corporation since 1988. In 2002, the MBL presented a symposium in honor of Dr. Shimomura’s achievements.
Osamu and Akemi Shimomura live in Falmouth, Massachusetts. They have two grown children.
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