Look closely at the beautiful glowing jellyfish next time you are in an aquarium. Slowly raise your hand, put it near the glass and say, “Thank you jellyfish, you are awesome.” You may get awkward looks but it is totally worth it. A relative of the jellyfish you are looking at has changed science forever. Here is how.
Cells are made up of tens of thousands of proteins but we can’t actually see them because they are so small. These proteins make cells function properly and therefore make you, and every other living thing, function normally too. In fact, when these proteins go bad, cancer and other diseases can ensue; therefore, a large chunk of the research across the world tries to figure out how proteins work.
Take a look at the movie below of a breast cancer cell that we have taken on one of our microscopes. We are now looking at how one protein (known as tubulin) works in a living cancer cell over a few hours. How do we do this? This is where the jellyfish comes in.
Over the course of 25+ years, a series of scientists discovered and worked on a gene in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. Why would scientists be interested in a jellyfish gene for so long? Well, this gene makes a fascinating protein that glows green when blue light is shined on it. The glowing protein uses the energy from the blue light to make the green light, and therefore does not require any other outside energy source.
This glowing jellyfish protein was named Green Fluorescent Protein (or GFP). Importantly, this discovery was happening right around the time when people were getting really good at moving a gene from one organism to another. Scientists decided to take the GFP gene from the jellyfish and pop it into bacteria, fungi, plant, animal, and human cells. Now, amazingly the cells from all these other organisms also glowed green. This was actually quite a big deal since these scientists just created a portable, single-molecule sized light bulb that does not run on batteries but on blue light.
Fast forward to today and GFP has revolutionized how we do science and been instrumental in health related research. By placing the GFP gene next to a gene we want to study, we can now light up any protein in a living cell. For example, in the previous video we light up the protein tubulin and watch how it forms the mitotic spindle, which is essential for almost all forms of life, and is extremely important in cancer growth and chemotherapy. We also use GFP to watch how cancer cells die in real time and how lung cancer tumors grow in mice
Another great example is the “Brainbow mouse” (image above), where different brain cells (neurons) are color coded by GFP (and derivatives) to better understand neuronal function. This mouse has been used to study neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as understand normal brain biology. These are just a couple of examples but the impact of GFP has been felt across the entire research spectrum from biomedical sciences to agriculture. Most deservedly then, GFP won three scientists- Roger Tsien, Martin Chalfie, and Osamu Shimomura the Nobel Prize in 2008.
So give a big shout out to the team of scientists that had this awesome idea and thank your local jellyfish for helping to create some new discoveries that advance our understanding of human biology and disease.