Glowing Proteins; Less-Than-Glowing Prospects?

Recently, Dr. Roger Tsien earned a Nobel prize for his work in creating a stunning array of colorful, glowing proteins. Not only are they, like, totally psychedelically intense, man, but they’re also very useful in tagging cells and seeing how they interact with things in their environment – like drugs, or viruses, or toxins.

Tsien developed GFP-like proteins that produced a variety of colors so that multiple proteins or cells can be followed simultaneously.

“In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colors,” the Nobel citation said. The experiment was called the “brainbow.”

“This is a technology that has literally transformed medical research,” said Dr. John Frangioni, an associate professor of medicine and radiology at Harvard Medical School. “For the first time, scientists could study both genes and proteins in living cells and in living animals.”

But Tsien didn’t create his glowing proteins all by himself. He (and his two co-laureates) credit their success to Dr. Douglas Prasher, the man who first extracted the glowing protein from bioluminescent jellyfish. You might expect Prasher to be receiving the news of the Nobel in his chemistry lab, surrounded by enthusiastic lab assistants… or maybe in the workshops at NASA, where he worked until 2006.

When Prasher, a family man who’d just taken out a large mortgage, was laid off by the ailing space agency.

So he received word of his Nobel-inspiring work at his new job, driving a shuttle at an Alabama car dealership:

He could have kept his work to himself. Instead, he mailed a couple of test tubes to Roger Tsien at the University of California and Martin Chalfie at Columbia University.

“It was more important to me to hand over the tool to other scientists with the funding than to have individual glory,” Prasher told London’s Daily Mail.

So how did he end up driving those nice folks in Alabama to and from Bill Penney’s excellent and, no doubt, munificent Toyota dealership?

“After I gave up my work on the jellyfish, I eventually found another dream job, with the U.S. space program, but I was laid off in 2006 and I haven’t been able to get another scientific position,” Prasher said.

There is something wrong with the big picture here.