An Alternative Approach To Science Is Illuminated By
Nobel Laureate’s Visit To FAU
Dr. Martin Chalfie (William R. Kenan Jr. Professor, Columbia University) shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on green fluorescent protein (GFP). When invited by Ph.D. student Monica Risely to give the keynote address at the 7th Annual FAU Integrative Biology Ph.D. Student Retreat in February, he readily accepted. Chalfie spoke about how triumphs in science come through many ways, usually not the “scientific method” described in the traditional scientific textbook. In his inspirational lecture, Chalfie emphasized that scientific progress is amassed from the collective efforts of many people, and in a bow to those in the audience pointed out that students and postdoctoral fellows typically function as the scientific pioneers.
Reflecting on his own experiences during the discovery and development of GFP, he told the audience that science often advances along un-planned paths and certainly does not fit the textbook description of the scientific method. He repeated the story from a physicist that if the experimental result is what you expect it probably wasn’t an experiment. He re-counted the story of how his co-winner of the Nobel Prize, Osamu Shimomura, after numerous attempts of trying and failing to isolate the protein that turns jellyfish green, threw the jellyfish preparation into the laboratory sink and, only upon glancing back after turning off the lights, realized that the sink glowed green, due to a missing component in the fluorescent reaction (calcium) that was present in the dirty sink. This diverted Shimomura down a different path to the successful characterization of the jellyfish green protein.
Chalfie cited the characteristics of “ignorance, stubbornness and a willingness to try” often enable a scientist to pay no attention to former conventions and take some risks. Here, he referred to his graduate student, Ghia Euskirchen, who ignored other researchers that claimed she couldn’t express a functional fluorescent protein in bacteria. Quite the contrary, Euskirchen not only expressed the GFP gene in bacteria but the bacteria fluoresced under blue light. This was the first step in his introduction of GFP into higher organisms. His goal was to watch cells in action in higher organisms and being an expert in the biology of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans he showed in a Science paper that he could watch neurons grow during development.
Perhaps the best part of Chalfie’s lecture, was that his interest in GFP started by his attending a presentation on jellyfish and how they glow. During the lecture, his mind started to wander and he wondered if this newly found fluorescent protein could be used to follow gene expression and protein localization in a living organism such as the transparent worm C. elegans. C. elegans is a model organism studied by many scientists due to its ease-of-use. It is a small, true animal (with rudiments of physiological systems found in more advanced animals like humans) with rapid reproduction and short lifespan. Through his experience with GFP, Chalfie emphasized the importance of basic research on all life, not just model organisms, including non-traditional organisms like the jellyfish. GFP was discovered as a result of “basic research” and was only later applied to medical issues. He left the audience with the message that translational research only happens if you have something “basic” to translate.
Photo Source: Cover of Science 263:802-805, 1994, and photo from Columbia University.