Have you ever seen the bright light of a firefly in the night sky? Fireflies are not the only animals that have the ability to shine. Certain types of jellyfish, starfish, and algae also emit light. Sea creatures use this light to startle and confuse predators.
This light that comes from living things is called bioluminescence. For many years, chemists did not know what caused bioluminescence. Osamu Shimomura, a successful chemist, devoted his career to finding out what causes this light.
Osamu Shimomura was born in Kyoto, Japan on August 27, 1928. As a teenager, he became interested in chemistry. A few professors recognized his talent and asked him to work in their research labs. Shimomura earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Nagoya University in Japan. In 1960, he was invited to work at Princeton University. He moved to the United States and began studying the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. This type of jellyfish is bioluminescent. It gives off a green glow.
After years of research, Shimomura discovered what causes this green glow. It was a protein, which he called the green fluorescent protein (GFP). Shimomura removed GFP from thousands of jellyfish in order to study it. In 2008, he and two other chemists received a Nobel Prize for this discovery.
Not only is GFP the reason behind the green fluorescence, but GFP also serves an important function in other scientific research. Scientists use special microscopes called electron microscopes to look at the insides of animal cells. They help us learn about how the inside of a cell works. Even with these special microscopes, it can be hard for scientists to observe certain processes in a cell. For example, proteins are molecules that help a cell function. There are many different types of proteins in a single cell. Because proteins are so small, scientists could not see how certain proteins move within a cell or how they interact with other molecules. But Shimomura’s discovery of GFP helped solve this issue. Scientists could attach GFP to certain proteins in a cell. The GFP made those proteins light up with a green glow. Scientists could easily see the glowing proteins, watch how they move, and understand what they do in a cell.
Shimomura did not realize his discovery would be so helpful to other scientists. His discovery has had a huge impact on how scientists study the many processes in a cell.