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 Victoriajellyfish. 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.