The Jellyfish that Lit the World

October 8, 2008
The edge of Aequorea victoria's umbrella contains a bioluminscent protein called aequorin.

Aequorea victoria

A scientific adventure that began with a haul of 10,000 bioluminescent jellyfish off Friday Harbor during 1961 has resulted in the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Osamu Shimomura‘s career shot forward in 1956 when he isolated a luminescent protein found in the mollusc Cypridina. This was a major feat for a young researcher, particularly since U.S. scientists had worked without success for some time on it. Princeton University snapped up Shimomura, who was awarded a PhD from Nagoya University without even being a doctoral candidate. He now works at Connecticut College.

Once in the U.S., Shimomura turned his attention to the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. Over the course of 1961, he and a colleague gathered and sliced the edges off 10,000 jellyfish — the parts that glow — and mashed them into a condensed form. Back at the lab, the scientists discovered that the material glowed brightly, when activated by the calcium ions in seawater. They named this brightening protein aequorin.

Aequorin contains a chromophore that has become a pivotal investigatory tool for biochemical researchers around the world. This “beer-can-shaped” protein absorbs blue and ultraviolet light, then re-emits it at a green wavelength.

Today, scientists use this molecular flashlight to illuminate cancer tumors as they grow, track the progression of Alzheimer’s, and map the basic function of cells. With Green Fluorescent Protein, researchers can watch a single protein move about a cell.

Shimomura shares the prize, one-third each, with colleagues Marty Chalfie of Columbia University and Roger Tsien of UC-San Diego.

(Image courtesy: The GFP Site)