drawing glowing bacteria agar

Image: Wikimedia Commons


This “drawing” might look like it was made by a kid in grade school, but make no mistake it symbolizes one of the biggest achievements in 21st century biology. This San Diego beach scene was actually drawn in an  eight color palette of bacterial colonies expressing fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and the red-fluorescent coral protein dsRed. Effectively, this is a picture literally drawn with life.

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Osamu Shimomura collected his one thousandth jellyfish of the day, on a hot summer afternoon in 1961. He had no idea that the painstaking work would eventually net him a Nobel prize in 2008, along with Roger Tsien and Martin Chalfie. Shimomura’s discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP) later that year set in motion a series of developments that revolutionised the way we look inside cells.  Each of the Nobel laureates played a critical role in turning an unusual jellyfish protein into compounds that are routinely found in cell biology labs across the world and continue to provide new insights into diseases such as cancer, HIV and Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers were the first to find the genes responsible for expressing GFP in jellyfish and the red fluorescent dye in corals. Neither of them, however, had any idea how far reaching their work will turn out to be. Nowadays, biological and medical research consider the proteins as paramount. For instance, a Harvard University team, led by Jeff Lichtman in 2007, dyed neurons in mice in a kaleidoscope of 90 different colours – giving them the chance to look for unique patterns. The red protein from corals is particularly important since it can be imaged in infrared, so now researchers are using it as a biomarker to diagnose cancer without the need for biopsies.

This glowing protein has given us a whole new way to examine the inner workings of cells, providing insights into a range of diseases