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NIH Office of the Director (OD)

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, October 8, 2008


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Press Statement from NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.

NIH Grantees Win 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the Discovery and Development of the Green Fluorescent Protein, GFP

The 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry is shared by two NIH grantees, Martin Chalfie, Ph.D., of Columbia University and Roger Y. Tsien, Ph.D., of the University of California at San Diego. The two researchers share the award with a former NIH grantee, Osamu Shimomura, Ph.D., of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. The three researchers are honored for discovering a fluorescent protein, GFP, in a colorful jellyfish and developing it into a key tool for observing previously invisible processes, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or how cancer cells spread.

By using DNA technology, researchers can now connect GFP to other interesting, but otherwise invisible proteins. This glowing marker allows them to watch the movements, positions and interactions of the targeted proteins.

"I am glad that these seminal discoveries were recognized by the Nobel committee. It is imperative for researchers to map and understand the role of different proteins and their interactions real time in the body," said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. "Understanding how this protein machinery malfunctions will increase our knowledge about potential causes of illness and disease and perhaps lead to better treatments."

The NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) began supporting the work of Shimomura in 1979 and Chalfie and Tsien in 1982. Over the years, NIGMS has provided more than $18 million in support of the three scientists. In addition, the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) has provided more than $8 million to support the research of Dr. Tsien, who received NINDS' Javits Award for the work cited by the Nobel committee. Dr. Tsien has also received support from the National Eye Institute. Dr. Chalfie has also received support from the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute on Aging. The NIH has provided a total of more than $29 million to the three researchers.

"The discovery and development of GFP was literally a green light for biological research, enabling scientists to quickly visualize gene expression, protein movement, and other critical processes with great clarity in living cells," said NIGMS Director Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D. "GFP rapidly became an essential piece of the scientific toolbox, paving the way for an explosion of groundbreaking studies that significantly advanced our understanding of health and disease. It is impossible to understate the impact of these investigators' work on scientific progress."

Osamu Shimomura first isolated GFP from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which drifts with the currents off the west coast of North America. He discovered that this protein glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.

Martin Chalfie demonstrated the value of GFP as a luminous genetic tag for various biological phenomena. In one of his first experiments, he colored six individual cells in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with the aid of GFP.

Roger Y. Tsien contributed to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces. He also extended the color palette beyond green allowing researchers to give various proteins and cells different colors. This enables scientists to follow several different biological processes at the same time.

The Office of the Director, the central office at NIH, is responsible for setting policy for NIH, which includes 27 Institutes and Centers. This involves planning, managing, and coordinating the programs and activities of all NIH components. The Office of the Director also includes program offices which are responsible for stimulating specific areas of research throughout NIH. Additional information is available at http://www.nih.gov/icd/od/.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.


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