Luminous research assistant

How fluorescent proteins revolutionized science

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It all began with a jellyfish. When Japanese biochemist Osamu Shimomura studied the glow of Aequorea victoria in the 1960s, he came upon a molecule that would change the world. The researchers identified the green fluorescent protein (GFP) as the source of the color play of this jellyfish species. This protein fluoresced bright green under UV light.

This image was created using bacteria that express different fluorescent proteins. Nathan Shaner, CC-by-sa 3.0

From jellyfish protein to biomarker

As Shimomura discovered, so-called chromophores in the protein absorb the radiation and are thereby energized. Immediately thereafter, they return to their ground state and emit the absorbed energy again, this time as green visible light. His discovery met with great interest in the scientific community and prompted many researchers to take a closer look at the green glowing jellyfish protein.

In the mid-1990s, molecular biologists Martin Chalfie and Douglas Prasher succeeded in isolating and sequencing the gene for GFP. Since then, it has become possible to use genetically engineered organisms to produce artificial luminous substances and to use the green fluorescent protein as a biomarker. Thanks to Roger Tsien, there were soon even more proteins available. The chemist developed other variants based on the GFP that glow in all the colors of the rainbow.

Transgenic Luminescent Zoo

Today, the green fluorescent protein and other fluorescent proteins from medical and biochemical research have become indispensable. Their light signal can make biological processes visible in living cells or organisms that otherwise remain hidden from the eye of the scientist. Changes in living brain cells, the growth of tumors, but also transport processes at the cellular level can be understood with the help of fluorescent proteins.

Mice under UV light: The rodents left and right were incorporated with the GFP gene. © Ingrid Moen et al., CC-by-sa 2.0

As a side-effect, over the years a whole zoo of transgenic animals has emerged that glow under certain conditions - from flies to fish and mice to monkeys. Scientists have even infiltrated the green fluorescent protein into the germ cells of primates, rendering the luminous property hereditary to the next generation, an ethically undisputed intervention. display

Fish as water monitors

Most fluorescent creatures are a product of medical research. But scientists have also created luminous creatures for other purposes. For example, a research team from the University of Singapore injected the GFP gene into zebrafish to control water quality.

The corresponding gene sequence was incorporated into a DNA region, which only becomes active when the fish need a body-own purification mechanism. If the animals live in polluted water with certain pollutants, this mechanism is stimulated - and the fish begin to glow in the presence of daylight or artificial light. Later, similarly modified fish were even marketed under the brand name "GloFish" as aquarium fish. They shone constantly.

Honored with the Nobel Prize

One thing is clear: without the phenomenon of biofluorescence, many of the scientific findings and achievements of recent years would never have been possible. "Fluorescent organisms have made a lasting difference to modern research, " says chemist Marc Zimmer of Connecticut College, New London, who has written a book on biological light phenomena.

The great importance of fluorescent proteins as a research tool has already been taken into account by the Nobel Prize Committee. In 2008, Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Tsien received the coveted award for their contributions to the development of marker proteins, which have become indispensable to many scientists.

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- Daniel Albat