Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize? It is an award given once a year to the
world’s greatest contributors to science in the fields of chemistry, physics,
and physiology/medicine. The Nobel
Prize is generally considered to be the highest, best, and most prestigious
prize a scientist can be awarded in those areas. In the past, Nobel Prizes have been given to the scientists
that contributed to the discovery of DNA, the scientists that discovered HIV (the
virus that causes AIDS), and the scientists that figured out how your nose and
brain work together to smell things.
Albert Einstein was awarded the Physics Nobel prize in 1921 for his
discovery of the law of Photoelectric Effect. The road to a Nobel prize starts with people asking
questions about the world around them and figuring out ways to find answers to
their questions. In other words,
scientists are curious just like you!
In honor of cool, curious kids and scientists everywhere, today let’s
learn about the science behind a recent Nobel prize.
In 2008, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in
Chemistry for their "discovery and development of the green fluorescent
protein, GFP.” "GFP” is just what
it sounds like: it is a protein
that glows green. The protein
absorbs light that has a specific amount of energy, and then emits (releases)
light of a different energy, an energy that we can see. You won’t believe where GFP came
from—jellyfish! Specifically, GFP
comes from a jellyfish called Aequorea
Victoria that lives in the pacific
waters west of North America. Here
are some pictures of of an Aequorea Victoria jellyfish. Adult jellyfish are usually 3
centimeters across or larger.
Aequorea Victoria . Pictures are used with the permission of Sierra Blakely, the
author and copyright holder (2008).
Some jellyfish and other animals naturally make proteins
that glow. When animals glow,
scientists say that they have "bioluminescence.” Animals use bioluminescence for a number of reasons, such as
talking to each other, attracting prey, and defending themselves against
predators. GFP was named "Green Fluorescent
Protein” because it makes parts of the jellyfish glow green. Scientists studied the protein and
figured out how to make other things make the same protein. Suddenly they could make bacteria or
yeast glow green, or worms, or even fish.
Other scientists figured out ways to make the GFP even better for their
research. The water that the jellyfish
lived in was cold, so at first GFP only worked well in cold temperatures, but
scientists figured a way to make the protein work well in warm temperatures, so
a mammal’s cells can now make GFP—even human cells! Scientists figured out ways to make the protein glow even
brighter and to be stronger, and other scientists figured out how to change the
protein just a little bit so that instead of glowing green, it could glow
yellow or blue, or even red!
This is a picture that was "painted” on a petri dish using
bacterial colonies whose DNA has been modified so that they make different
kinds of GFP or a second kind of fluorescent protein that originally came from
a kind of coral. When the petri
dish is held under the right kind of light, the bacteria glow in different
colors, making a picture of an island sunset and a palm tree. Aren’t bacteria beautiful?
A San Diego beach scene drawn with bacterial colonies that
make fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and a coral protein. The artwork was done by Nathan Shaner
in Roger Tsien’s lab in 2006, and was photographed by Paul Steinbach. Roger Tsien was one of the Nobel Prize
winners for his work with GFP.
Now GFP is a really important tool in scientific
research. Scientists use it every
day. One way that they do this is
to hook a GFP protein onto another protein that they want to study. When they shine the right kind of light
onto the cell that is making the proteins and look under a microscope at them,
they can see parts of the cell glowing, and they know that the protein they are
studying is moving to specific parts of the cell, like the nucleus or the cell
membrane. People have even used
GFP for fun reasons. People
figured out a way to make almost all of the cells of animals make GFP, and now
you can buy a pet fish or even a mouse that glows green under black light. Amazing!
If you’d like to learn to grow your own bacteria on a petri
dish (they probably won’t glow, but they may turn out to be different colors) check
out our "Yuck!” science kit, with which you’ll also get the chance to make lots
of other cool and gross stuff.