Discoverer Of GFP Osamu Shimomura Dies At 90 (In Memoriam)

Professor Osamu Shimomura’s discovery of green fluorescent protein in 1962 continues to shed light on the biomolecular pathways of biology.

AsianScientist (Oct. 26, 2018) – Professor Osamu Shimomura, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other scientists for the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), passed away on October 19, 2018 at the age of 90.

Born in Fukuchiyama, a city in the Northern Kyoto prefecture of Japan, on August 27, 1928, Shimomura grew up at a time when Japanese militarism was at its peak. In his autobiography for the Nobel Prize foundation, Shimomura recounted having to perform weekly exercises guided by military officers attached to Sasebo Middle School where he studied, also recalling how he survived a bombing by B-29 bombers.

Given the disruptions to his education during the war, Shimomura’s application to enrol in Nagasaki Medical College was rejected. He eventually went to Nagasaki Pharmacy College instead, where he became interested in chemistry. There, he helped developed a chromatography method which was published in the Journal of the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan in 1953, the first of many research papers he would go on to author.

Shimomura’s first brush with GFP took place at Princeton University in the US. He had been invited to Princeton in 1959 to join the laboratory of Dr. Frank Johnson, who was then the university’s Edward Grant Conklin Professor of Biology. Shimomura was tasked with extracting and purifying luminescent material from the Aequorea jellyfish. He succeeded in identifying the protein—aequorin—that conferred the jellyfish their luminescence.

However, In the process of isolating aequorin using column chromatography, Shimomura noticed a trace of another protein which eluted sooner than aequorin and exhibited green fluorescence. He purified this other protein as well in 1962, and this turned out to be the GFP that defined his career and won him the Nobel Prize. He reported the fluorescence-emitting structure, or chromophore, of GFP in the journal FEBS Letters in 1979.

“When I found the chromophore of GFP in 1979, I thought I had done all I could do with GFP, and decided to terminate my work on GFP in order to concentrate my efforts in the study of bioluminescence, my lifework,” said Shimomura in his Nobel Lecture.

“In 1994, GFP was successfully expressed in living organisms by [Martin Chalfie and colleagues], and it was further developed into its present prosperous state by Roger Tsien,” he added, naming the two other co-recipients of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

GFP has since gone on to become a staple tool in biomolecular research labs around the world. It has been used to tag a staggering array of molecules in living systems, shedding light on fundamental biological processes such as cellular movement and organismal development. For example, by attaching GFP to a protein, scientists can track the location of the protein inside a cell and observe how it interacts with other cellular constituents. Beyond the field of biology, GFP has also been used to detect metals such as cadmium and zinc, as well as explosive TNT.

Shimomura retired in 2001 and went on to publish two books, titled Bioluminescence: Chemical Principles and Methods and Luminous Pursuit: Jellyfish, GFP, and the Unforeseen Path to the Nobel Prize. In 2013, he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.

Even after his demise, Shimomura’s discovery of GFP continues to illuminate the path of research. He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, and two grandchildren.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: U. Montan/The Nobel Foundation.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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