Glowing proteins shed light on gene expression

Nobel Prize recipient, Martin Chalfie, spoke in the Alumni Memorial Building on Thursday, Oct. 12.

Written by Shelby Whitehead

The comic book superhero Hulk is best known for the green color of his skin, which is caused by a special protein called Green Florescence Protein (GFP).  Although the Hulk is fictional, GFP is real and considered one of the most useful tools in modern science.

During a lecture at the Alumni Memorial Building on Thursday, Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize recipient for the discovery and development of GFP, claimed the discovery of GFP revolutionized how scientist understood, studied and manipulated gene expression.

GFP is used to study cell structure, create florescent silk fabrics and detect underground landmines to name a few.

“We are at the golden age of science. We just have to do something with it,” said Chalfie.

GFP is a protein that causes certain cells to glow bright greem under ultraviolet light.  The mechanics of GFP were first understood by biochemist Osamu Shimomora who discovered the protein’s interaction with a certain level of carbon in seawater is what cause florescent jellyfish to glow.

Chalfie explained that the discovery came from a problem his lab was having with studying nematodes, tiny transparent and worm-like creatures. The only way to study nematodes was to kill them.

“First, I work on a transparent animal. The other thing is we wanted to know where [on the genome] genes were expressed.”

Prior processes for studying the genome took a greater period of time to prepare a small sample.

“You got this static picture of what was happening because once you kill it, nothing is going to change… We were thankful for this static picture—but we wanted more,” Chalfie said.

Specifically, Chalfie wanted a way to study the nervous system in the nematodes and how the unique gene expression was related to that process. GFP integrated into the nematode genome allowed Chalfie and his lab to actually see a green glow in the genes active in the nervous system of the living organism, shining light on a biological process that was previous shrouded in darkness.

Chalfie said he was instilled with scientific myths where he was first studying biology in 1962, and only through the discovery of GFP did he realize how wrong those ideas where.

“I thought if you don’t happen to be a genius, don’t event start… Scientific ability is innate,” Chalfie said. “I was told scientists’ experiments work all the time—which, I’m judging by the laughter, everyone knows isn’t true.”

Edited by Taylor Owens

Featured image by Nima Kasraie