Innovation Blog

Jellyfish, Curiosity, Collaboration: Why the 2008 Nobel Prize for Chemistry is a Great Parable for World-Changing Innovation  


By Shlomo Maital


 Jellyfish: Green Edges when Upset! 



 The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists: one Japanese, one Chinese, one American.  The story of how their research helped unlock the innermost secrets of life is a parable about the three drivers of world-changing innovation:    curiosity, collaboration, and “X + Y” (connecting things others would not think of joining).


   First, the story.  The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008 was won by Osama Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Tsien.   My source is:

 1.     The jellyfish glows green around the outer edge when it becomes agitated. What makes it glow???  Who cares?  Only those who have the freedom to follow their interest, and who have curiosity about everything strange, on this earth.  In 1961 Osamu Shimomura set out with other scientists to find out the answer.  They managed to  isolate two proteins which were responsible for making the jellyfish glow. They named them aequorin and green fluorescent protein (GFP).   Little did they know that many years later the green fluorescent protein would change the world of science.

     Normally proteins are not visible in a microscope, but green fluorescent protein (GPF) absorbs Ultraviolet light or blue light and then glows green.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could link GFP  to another protein that you are interested in studying, so that you could see your protein glow?  Perhaps even in other organisms?”

2.     The second Nobel Prize winner, Martin Chalfie, showed that this was indeed possible!  Each protein in our cells is produced by turning on a specific sequence in our DNA, a “gene”.  Chalfie inserted the gene that codes for GFP next to the gene that expresses another protein.  When the protein is made, it is automatically attached to GFP:  a glowing protein is produced!  Now scientists can see exactly where in the cell the protein is and follow its movements using a microscope.”

3. “ Roger Tsien, the 3rd Nobel winner, looked at the molecular details of GFP and was able to change the protein very slightly to produce new types that emit light in DIFFERENT COLORS! Now researchers could see proteins interact with each other in the cell by labeling each one with different colors…  multicolored glowing proteins revealing the secrets of life inside the cell!  Tsien thus built on the findings of his colleagues. 


   “ Nowadays GFP and similar proteins are a very important tool in science to light up and see molecules at work using a microscope.  Some really spectacular applications include mice that fluoresce under ultraviolet light (used in medical research)… And Glofish…fish that glow thanks to a linked fluorescent gene.”