Featured Seawords Article January-February 2020

How a Brainless Organism Won the Nobel PrizeJellyfish by David Yu

Rayna McClintock

Jellyfish are simple creatures in Phylum Cnidaria, along with corals and anemones. At first look, you would not think that these brainless creatures would have made a large contribution to the scientific community. It turns out that without jellyfish, we would be much farther behind in the study of microbiology. Jellyfish contain the green fluorescence protein (GFP), a molecule that is expressed naturally in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. This protein works like many manufactured fluorescing objects- it absorbs light energy from its environment and re-emits it, giving off a green glow. Scientists are unsure why this trait evolved in jellyfish, but the current assumption is that it was developed to ward off predators.
The protein responsible for the fluorescence was first extracted by Osamu Shimomura in the 1960s, along with the gene that codes for its creation. With this information, the protein could then be inserted into other animals through genetic modification techniques. By placing GFP into specific cells of plants and animals, their functions could be observed.
Another researcher, Martin Chalfie, worked with the protein 30 years after it was first extracted, turning GFP into an observation tool for gene expression. Finally, it was Roger Tsiem’s turn a few years later. He used the principles of GFP to develop an array of different, brighter colors so multiple biological molecules could be studied at once. These discoveries have allowed scientists to trace cancer cells, infections, and cell reproduction. Human proteins are so small that they cannot be observed, so this utilization of this glowing jellyfish protein allows researchers to see into the human genome and watch how our proteins actually form.
This innovation was recognized in 2008 when Chalfie, Osamu, and Tsien received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their roles in discovering and applying the green fluorescence protein from jellyfish. As mysterious as the ocean is, it may hold the answers to understanding humanity and how our biology functions.

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January-February Seawords 2020