Interview with the 2008 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien, 6 December 2008. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
The Laureates discuss how they entered science, the green fluorescent protein’s journey of discovery from jellyfish to worms (8:17), the motivations behind creating a paintbox of fluorescent proteins (23:32), and how to attract students to study other glowing molecules that exist in Nature (35:10).
Telephone interview with Osamu Shimomura immediately following the announcement of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 8 October 2008. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Osamu Shimomura] Hello.
[Adam Smith] Oh, hello. Professor Shimomura?
[AS] Hello, this is Adam Smith from the Nobel Foundation web site in Stockholm. Congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
[OS] Thank you.
[AS] First off, where were you when you heard the news? I imagine it was quite early when you received the phone call.
[OS] Yes, at 5:00 AM when I was in deep sleep!
[AS] Did you wake up when they phoned?
[OS] Well, my wife woke up, and she told me, this is a phone from Stockholm.
[OS] Then I knew, something wrong!
[AS] I imagine that you have had some idea that this might be on the way before?
[OS] Well, well, only thing with a call from Stockholm is possibly Nobel Prize.
[AS] Yes, yes.
[OS] No other business I guess.
[AS] Yes, yes.
[OS] At least, to me.
[AS] Exactly. So, your interest in bioluminescence began …
[OS] Yes, I purified a bioluminescent protein from a jellyfish. In 1961.
[AS] Exactly. So this was the isolation of green fluorescent protein.
[OS] No, no, no, no, no. Just luminescent protein; bioluminescent protein. I think people confuse luminescence and fluorescence. There are two kinds of protein in the jellyfish. One is a luminescent protein just we talked, that name is aequorin. Another one is a separate protein which emits green fluorescence. That is the subject protein in this Award.
[OS] And I didn’t know any use of that protein, of that fluorescent protein, at that time, until Chalfie discovered in 1994 that it can be expressed in living cells. So I had no idea of the applications of green fluorescent protein for a long time.
[AS] So, first you isolated the bioluminescent protein.
[OS] Yes, that was my objective. My purpose.
[AS] And you had remarkable collecting expeditions when you were doing that project, because you had …
[OS] Yes, there were many difficulties and trouble. But anyway, somehow I found how to extract that protein. And after finding that, what we needed to do to study that protein is we have to get large amounts of that protein. So, we collected huge numbers of jellyfish by going to Friday Harbor, Washington, every summer.
[AS] And how many jellyfish were you having to collect?
[OS] Well, our … schedule was 50,000 per summer, in one or two months.
[AS] That’s an extraordinary collection!
[OS] And only for one year.
[AS] Yes, and then you did this every year?
[OS] Yes, we have been 19 years. Nineteen summers. And we collected a total of 850,000.
[AS] Good grief! This is classical biochemistry.
[OS] Yes, of course that’s classical biochemistry, not genetics or something like that.
[AS] Yes. Do you think that there are still many undiscovered molecules in nature which emit light?
[OS] Yes, there are many, many. Interesting, at least to me. But the problem is that … I talked many times since this morning … young people try to avoid this kind of subject.
[AS] Why do you think that is so? Why do they stay away from …?
[OS] Because it’s difficult.
[AS] Uh-huh, uh-huh.
[OS] They prefer easier research. And they prefer research subjects that you can see the results; that you are sure to get the results. If, you see good results often, and important results often come out from unknown research.
[AS] Yes, this Nobel Prize is a classic example of research in one field yielding results in another field in a completely unexpected way.
[OS] Yes, but the point is that I don’t study, I don’t do my research for application or any benefit. I just do my research to understand why jellyfish luminesce, and why that protein fluoresce?
[AS] So, how would you appeal to young people, or what advice would you give to young people who wanted to enter the field?
[OS] Young people, study whatever if they are interested in that subject. But don’t give up on the way until they finish the subject. Also, good subjects have a lot of difficulty. If one gives up, on the way; that’s it, that’s finished. To get success, everybody has to overcome any difficulty on the way.
[AS] I gather you are now retired from Wood’s Hole, but you still have a laboratory in your basement in your house?
[OS] We call it a basement.
[AS] Right. And what are you working on now?
[OS] At this moment, I’m too busy for doing experiments. I don’t have much time. And this time, I think it’s hopeless to work out of the laboratory for the next several months, I guess.
[AS] I’m afraid, yes, your life has taken a new turn, yes.
[OS] Hopeless, yes. But anyway, for the past two or three months I was just working on writing papers, and also helping other people.
[AS] One last question, please.
[OS] Yes, yes.
[AS] I have read that, as a child, as a teenager, you temporarily lost your vision after the bomb fell on Nagasaki.
[OS] No, I understand what you mean. When you encounter a very strong flash, you don’t see anything for 30 seconds or so. That’s not a real loss of vision. The temporary loss of sight. I was about 12 kilometres away from Nagasaki. Of course I had seen the flash of light, and the strong pressure wave, and also I had black rain.
[OS] I was soaked by black rain.
[OS] So, I was contaminated by the radioactivity, a lot of strong radioactivity. But fortunately still I’m alive.
[AS] Yes. So, do you have any plan for how you might celebrate the award when you finally …?
[OS] [Celebrate? I’d like to have a good sleep tonight, but that may be impossible!
[AS] I fear so. I think that people will be hounding you for days and days to come, yes.
[AS] Anyway, I hope you do find time to celebrate at some point. Thank you very much indeed.
[AS] Thank you for speaking to us.
[OS] You are welcome. Bye.
[AS] Bye, bye.
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