Roger Y. Tsien’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 2008
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2008
Photo: Hans Mehlin
Your majesties, your Royal Highnesses, ladies and gentlemen:
Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and I would like to thank those responsible for this great honor and to make some observations about what the Green Fluorescent Protein (or GFP) teaches us. We are deeply grateful that the Nobel committee and the Royal Academy of Sciences have selected us. We never directly collaborated with each other, nor was GFP the prime focus of any of our research careers, yet our contributions fortunately synergized with those of many other people, for example Douglas Prasher, to revolutionize the way that scientists image molecular events inside living cells and organisms. So we also thank the many collaborators and colleagues who really made this revolution happen. We are just three fortunate representatives of this community. On the personal side, we owe great debts to our spouses Akemi Shimomura, Tulle Hazelrigg, and Wendy Tsien, who have patiently (well, almost always patiently) endured and even abetted our maniacal obsessions with our research.
However, other aspects of our work were fragile results of lucky circumstances. Funding was difficult at times to obtain for basic research on obscure organisms like the jellyfish that was the source of GFP. We hope this prize reinforces recognition of the importance of basic science as the foundation for practical benefits to our health and economies. Furthermore, over the last ten years, observed numbers of jellyfish in their Pacific Northwest habitat have declined by over a thousandfold. Local marine biologists believe this crash is most likely due to polluted runoff from increased population and industrial development. Specimen collection by biochemists is not to blame, because only one or two species were harvested back in the 1960s-1980s, but all 75 or so jellyfish species are now suffering. Fortunately, the crucial early research on GFP was done before the population collapse, but what other potential scientific breakthroughs may never happen because of man-made pollution and global warming?
While environmentally friendly or so-called “green” chemistry has become all the rage in the chemical community, no human chemist can yet match what a single jellyfish gene directs: 238 ordered condensations + 1 cyclization + 1 oxidation, all done in a few minutes in aerated water with no protecting groups, only one slightly toxic byproduct, and essentially 100% yield of an extremely useful product that literally glows green. Corals produce yellow and red fluorescent proteins with the same chemistry plus one extra oxidation. Yet coral reefs are also under world-wide jeopardy, due to acidification and warming of the oceans. So my final thanks are to both the jellyfish and corals: long may they have intact habitats in which to shine!