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May 8, 2012

Science symposium hosts Nobel Prize winner

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Q

ueens College was paid a visit by the discoverer of a fluorescent protein, one that makes the task of tracking cell movement in organisms – a challenge faced by scientists until this discovery in 1996 – remarkably easier.

On April 21, the Sigma Xi Research Symposium, an international honor society of research scientists and engineers, hosted Martin Chalfie, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

The seventh regional meeting at QC featured numerous Sigma Xi members, including researchers from QC invited to display their research and discuss it with other scientists.

Notable scientists were also honored for their research. Award- winners included QC neuropsychology graduate student Philip Chu and QC undergraduate Kevin Jhun.

“I feel like there’s an aura of intelligence around me, especially knowing there is a Nobel laureate here,” said presenter Kimberly Page, a first- year doctoral student at QC. “He’s a brilliant man and he had a lot to say about the fluorescence I use in my research.”

QC professor Cathy Savage Dunn, a doctoral studies adviser for the biology department, was the first graduate student to join Chalfie’s lab.

“It was a very exciting atmosphere,” she said. “He encouraged students to be independent and to take advantage of every opportunity to learn different things.”

Chalfie shared the Nobel Prize with Osamu Shimomura and Roger Y. Tsien “for the discovery and development of the Green Fluorescent Protein, GFP.”

Shimomura was determined to crack the mystery of bioluminescence and understand the chemistry that allows certain animals to naturally emit light – specifically, what protein caused the green glow of Aequorea victoria, which is sometimes referred to as “crystal jelly.”

After many failed attempts, Shimomura began to believe that his research would never yield the results he sought. One night in the lab, he threw a concoction of jellyfish parts in the sink and began to leave. As he turned off the lights, a vibrant green light caught his eye.

The seawater in the sink contained calcium. Thus, he realized that Aequorea only glows green with the addition of calcium. He had accidentally made a remarkable discovery — the Green Fluorescent Protein. Shimomura’s work was the inspiration for Chalfie’s own studies.

As a post doctorate in 1977, Chalfie was using a small clear worm, C. Elegans, in his research. The transparency of its skin allows scientists to follow every cell division from the hatching of the animal to its maturity.

Chalfie wanted to know how cells detect mechanical stimuli; how their touch censors work. At that time, most methods of detecting these cells would kill the organism. GFP however, was relatively benign to cells and could be used to track cells without killing them.

Because GFP is a protein, it blends easily into a strand of DNA and so Chalfie began to use it as a genetic marker. This meant that he could mutate nerve cells and then watch how they functioned. He could genetically manufacture C. Elegans and then watch how their mechanical senses functioned in comparison to that of normal, non-genetically manufactured C. Elegans. Because GFP was implanted directly into the DNA of C. Elegans, this genetic marker could also be inherited by future generations.

“It’s definitely not an exaggeration to say this has revolutionized the way that many experiments are done in biology,” said Pamela K. Kerrigan, associate professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, NY, and director of the northeast region of Sigma Xi.

 



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