Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2009

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In the glow of Alfred Nobel

In the glow of Alfred Nobel
Waiters serve flaming dishes of pears Héléne at the nobel prize award ceremony and banquet.

His work with green fluorescent protein put Marc Zimmer, the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ´72 Professor of Chemistry, among the luminaries of science at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in December.

by Marc Zimmer


In just a few days, from late November to early December, my wardrobe made a quick transition from shorts and T-shirts to white tie and tails as I went from a field trip in Vieques, Puerto Rico, with 17 of my students to attending the Nobel Award banquet in Stockholm, Sweden.

The road to Stockholm, via Vieques, was paved with serendipity for me. It started in 1995 when Bruce Branchini, my department chair and firefly specialist, invited Douglas Prasher to give a seminar at Connecticut College about green fluorescent protein, which he had just cloned from jellyfish. In his seminar he told us that GFP could be used to show where and when a protein was made in a living organism. At the time, not many scientists were using GFP, and it was a relatively unknown molecule; but it had the potential to be big — very big.

Prasher ended his talk by mentioning something that was puzzling him and the few others studying GFP at that time: exactly how does GFP become fluorescent? Working as a team, John Lusins ´96, Amy Nemser ´97, Branchini, my computers and I came up with the solution. Since then my students and I have focused our research efforts on GFP.

By 2000, GFP was no longer an unknown jellyfish protein, and more than 10,000 papers had been published concerning GFP. Scientists had used it to make human tumors glow so they could be followed as they metastasized in a mouse. The GFP gene also had been inserted in bacteria in such a way that they fluoresced when in the presence of anthrax spores.

The time had come for a book about GFP. Since no one else had done it, I took a shot and wrote Glowing Genesover the summer in 2003; it was a surprisingly painless birth. Unfortunately it wasn´t selling very well, so when Andrew Weber ´07, a summer intern in my lab, was waiting for some calculations to finish, I decided we should create a GFP Web site (http://gfp.conncoll.edu). The site started small but has since grown, and although it has had nearly a million visitors, it didn´t fulfill its function of making a bestseller of my book.

Our Web site became popular with high school teachers and also, apparently, with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which invited me to come to Stockholm and talk to them about GFP. The details of my role and their deliberations are secret for the next 50 years. It´s a bit like a spy novel; I love it! The only thing I feel comfortable writing is that they never asked me who I thought should get the Nobel Prize if they were going to award it to GFP researchers. The rules of Alfred Nobel´s will state that the prize can be awarded to at most three living researchers; in the case of GFP, it could have gone to any of five different people.

My book and Web site led to my teaching a freshman seminar, Glow. It´s all about bioluminescent organisms and how the proteins involved in their light production can be used in biology and medicine. This year I had 17 students in the class, all part of the Science Leaders Program (CC: Magazine, Winter 2008-2009). On our field trip to Vieques, we swam among dinoflagellates, which light up when touched. The seminar also had some visitors, such as Nicole McNiel ´93 — now at the Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute — and Ghia Euskirchen, who was the first person to ever take Prasher´s GFP gene and make it fluoresce in an organism other than a jellyfish.

On Oct. 8 the Nobel Foundation was scheduled to announce the chemistry prize, and my class was very excited knowing that there was a real possibility that GFP could be recognized. At 5:30 a.m. my wife and I were in front of the computer watching the live broadcast of the award and heard the exhilarating news: the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.” Unfortunately Prasher, whose seminar was the impetus of my interest in GFP, was not among the prizewinners.

The Nobel Foundation established a link to my Web site and used it in its announcement. On that day, more than 50,000 people visited the site, and I was interviewed by the journals Science and Nature. It was the most rewarding day of my academic life, but it was about to get even better: An invitation to attend the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony and Banquet came to my campus mailbox. With it was a major incentive to attend, not that we needed one — a week´s accommodation at the elegant Grand Hotel, where together with friends and relatives of each Nobel laureate we would experience Nobel week in Stockholm. However, the gastronomical and intellectual feasts came at a price: In order to attend I had to kick my eveningwear standards up a couple of notches. To pass muster I would have to rent a tuxedo, shoes, black tie, shirt and cufflinks, as well as white tie and tails.

Nobel week was magical. The December sun sets at 2:45 p.m. in Stockholm, and the paths to the Nordic Museum and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, sites of some of the receptions, were lit up with flickering torches. Inside the beautifully decorated halls were equally decorated laureates, their friends and members of the academy. Here we sipped Champagne and enjoyed reindeer pate.

Before coming to Stockholm I knew three of the Nobel laureates. I´d met Luc Montagnier, the discoverer of the AIDS virus, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate at Connecticut College; and I knew Chalfie and Shimomura through our common interest in GFP. However the laureates were in demand at the receptions, and we spent our time talking with members of the selection committee and GFP friends, including Euskirchen and Prasher, who were there as Chalfie´s guests. Each night after the festivities we would all pass through a line of photographers and journalists before returning to the Grand Hotel and our soft, turned-down beds and heated towels.

The Nobel lectures for physics, chemistry and economics were presented at the University of Stockholm. I attended three chemistry lectures and one economics lecture and was gratified to see some images from our Web site used by the laureates. The unquestionable highlights of the week were the award ceremony and banquet hosted by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia. It was an intellectual hybrid of the Olympic opening ceremonies and the Academy Awards, and it´s broadcast live on Swedish and Japanese television. The menu and the dresses worn by the queen and princesses were a well-kept secret until the evening of Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel´s death. The next day they were all over the Internet and on the front page of all the Swedish dailies. Chalfie was seated beside Crown Princess Victoria, while economics laureate Paul Krugman enjoyed the company of her younger sister, Princess Madeleine. Prince Carl Philip had Wendy Tsien, wife of chemist Roger Tsien, as his guest of honor. Not reported in the papers but equally important was the fact that my wife was entertained by the presidents of Uppsala University and the Royal Institute of Technology, while my neighbors were two biochemists from Lund University.

On the morning of the feast, more than 7,000 porcelain pieces, 5,000 glasses and 10,000 pieces of silverware were meticulously laid out on the 470 meters of linen that adorned the banquet´s 65 tables. The spectacle surrounding the meal must be part of the reason the Nobel banquet is an annual TV viewing tradition in Sweden. Accompanied by a fanfare, waiters processed down a central staircase balancing the food above their heads. The king was served first, immediately followed by the queen. The desserts arrived in the dark, each server carrying three servings of Pears Hélène with flares shooting out three feet of sparks. But the highlight of the evening for me was Tsien´s banquet speech, which he concluded with, “My final thanks are to both the jellyfish and corals: long may they have intact habitats in which to shine!”

After a week with Nobel laureates and their colleagues, I am convinced that we have a few Connecticut College students with the capabilities and educational background to conduct Nobel-worthy research. But more than intellect and education is required to become a science superstar. He or she must first have the opportunity to start a groundbreaking project and then follow it with near-maniacal passion.

The fact that GFP was the basis of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and that I could be part of the excitement associated with its award, was a dream come true. I have always used dreams and goals to get me where I needed to go, whether it is Vieques with a group of potential science superstars from Connecticut College or Stockholm with the science elite. My new dream is that one of my students will be invited to Stockholm one day, not as a guest of the Nobel Foundation, but as the medicine or chemistry laureate.


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