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Nobel laureate Osamu Shimomura dies at 90

Shimomura isolated green fluorescent protein, a major tool in molecular and cell biology

by Erika Gebel Berg
October 25, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 43


A photograph of Shimomura receiving Japanese Order of Culture medal.
Credit: Tom Kleindinst
Osamu Shimomura

Osamu Shimomura, Distinguished Scientist Emeritus at Marine Biological Laboratory, died Oct. 19 at the age of 90. He shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on isolating green fluorescent protein (GFP).

GFP and similar glowing proteins have become ubiquitous workhorses in modern cell biology, illuminating the inner workings of cells in myriad studies. But in nature, the protein provides the green glow for Aequorea jellyfish. To find the source of the light, Shimomura and coworkers at Princeton University, including his wife Akemi, collected thousands of a green-glowing jellyfish from Friday Harbor in Washington’s Puget Sound.

First, they found aequorin, a blue-light-emitting protein. But since the jellyfish glow green, Shimomura knew there must be another player. While purifying aequorin using column chromatography, he found a tiny green band, which turned out to be GFP. The protein fluoresces green when it absorbs the blue light from aequorin.

Roger Y. Tsien of University of California, San Diego, and Martin Chalfie of Columbia University shared the 2008 Nobel Prize with Shimomura. Tsien, who died in 2016, elucidated the connection between GFP’s structure and its fluorescence, and Chalfie began labeling molecules inside living organisms with GFP.

“I am greatly saddened by Osamu’s death,” Chalfie says. “He was a dedicated and inventive scientist who took a lifelong interest in bioluminescence and made astonishing discoveries.”

Shimomura spent much of his career studying bioluminescence, collecting specimen after specimen of glowing creatures from across the globe and purifying their fluorescent agents. The organisms he studied included the limpet Latia, the krill Meganyctiphanes, the worm Chaetopterus, the firefly squid Watasenia, various aquatic critters, and luminous bacteria.

“Always a champion of the basic sciences, Shimomura pursued hard questions with perseverance, care, and a dogged determination,” says Marc Zimmer, who wrote a book about GFP called “Glowing Genes.” He notes that when he interviewed Shimomura for the book, the scientist told him that he preferred aequorin over GFP. “He was the perfect first interview for the book—interested, interesting, giving with information and time.”

Shimomura was born in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto-Fu, Japan in 1928. He graduated from Nagasaki College of Pharmacy in 1951, and received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Nagoya University in 1960. Before joining Marine Biological Laboratory in 1982, Shimomura was a research associate and senior biochemist at Princeton University, and a professor at Nagoya University and Boston University School of Medicine.

He is survived by his wife Akemi, his son Tsutomu, his daughter Sachi, and two grandchildren.

CORRECTION: This story was updated on Oct. 25, 2018, to correct Shimomura’s date of death.


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