The fundamental chemistry behind the creature’s glow had been worked out by Shimomura and others in the 1960s. The jellyfish is shaped like an umbrella, and its light comes from a ring of tiny, stemlike extensions along the umbrella’s circumference. Studying liquid squeezed out from these luminescent organs, Shimomura identified two proteins—called aequorin and GFP—that worked together to emit light. Aequorin gives out blue light when it binds with calcium in seawater; this light is absorbed by GFP, which then emits an intense green glow.
Cormier had a grant from pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann–La Roche to clone the gene for aequorin. The company wanted to use it as a diagnostic marker for disease: If synthetic versions of antibodies could be tagged with aequorin in the lab, then whenever they matched up with an antigen (or surface protein) of a specific pathogen in blood or tissue, the sample would glow. The only way to make aequorin on a commercial scale, Cormier believed, was to cultivate it inside bacteria that had been genetically engineered to contain the aequorin gene. But first he needed copies of the gene; it had to be cloned. To do the cloning, he hired Prasher, who quickly became fascinated by bioluminescence.
Soon Prasher was traveling
to the town of Friday Harbor, on an island in Puget Sound, to catch jellyfish by the thousands as they floated past the docks. After catching the jellyfish with pool-skimming nets, he and a group of other scientists would pin them down with a fork and spin them across a razor’s edge to slice off the light-emitting photo-organs, which would fall into a bucket in a translucent linguini heap. It was exhausting work that Prasher dived into with esprit de corps. Once the team members harvested the photo-organs, they were distributed like tomatoes from a community garden.
Prasher would freeze some of this tissue right away to take back to his lab to extract DNA. Other scientists would process the same tissue further to obtain the light-emitting proteins. They would add a liter of the tissue to two liters of seawater and shake the mixture 75 times—no more, no less—to make “the individual light-producing cells pop out of the tissue,” according to Bill Ward, a bioluminescence researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey who was a post-
doc in Cormier’s laboratory. The cells were filtered through mosquito netting and put through another series of steps to derive aequorin and GFP.
Over the course of six months, Prasher built libraries of jellyfish genes from the tissue he collected. Every tissue in an organism contains a variety of messenger RNA molecules, single-stranded nucleotide sequences bearing instructions for the making of specific proteins. Since messenger RNA is nothing but the imprint of the gene whose message it is carrying, it is possible to use it to chemically generate the DNA sequence or gene it corresponds to. From the sizable collection of genes generated this way, Prasher hoped to identify the specific ones responsible for aequorin and GFP.
To search through his gene library, Prasher relied on work done by Ward and others, who had already partially determined the sequence of amino acids (units of a protein) of which the bioluminescent molecules were made. Working backward, Prasher created synthetic DNA molecules that were approximate blueprints of the actual genes. He tagged each artificial gene with a radioactive compound and then added it to a mixture of E. coli containing most of the genes extracted from the jellyfish.
As he had hoped, his synthetic genes and the real ones were similar enough for the DNA base pairs to stick together. Both the aequorin and GFP genes were now identified, but Prasher felt that just one—the gene for GFP—was biomedical gold. Most light-emitting proteins found in nature do not work alone. Instead they rely on a chromophore, a light-producing chemical unit that is analogous to the filament of a bulb. Through a complicated biochemical process, the chromophore is added on to the protein, generating light. Aequorin was like that, able to light up only with the help of its chromophore, a property scientists today call bioluminescence. GFP, however, could stand alone. Scientists called it fluorescent rather than bioluminescent because a chromophore was never needed to produce the light.
Prasher immediately grasped the importance of his discovery. As a single-unit light source, GFP could serve as a perfect molecular tag for tracking genes and proteins in an organism. If a biomolecule of interest were tagged with the GFP gene, Prasher thought, a fluorescent signal would show when and where in the organism that gene or the protein it created was being put to use. “I knew GFP could be incredibly useful because it would be much easier to use in living systems than what was available,” he said.
All the signs looked promising for Prasher in 1987 when he got a tenure-track job at Woods Hole. He and Gina bought a house that was an eight-minute drive from the beach in the nearby town of Falmouth. The couple had a young daughter, Emma, and, for the most part, Gina stayed home to raise her. Money was always tight, but the family got by. Prasher, who likes gardening, planted vegetables in the backyard. “We’d collect seaweed from the beach to put on the asparagus bed,” Gina said. “We grew tomatoes to make spaghetti sauce.”
Prasher soon received a $200,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to clone his synthetic gene. But he hit a brick wall at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere as he tried to fund research proving the cloned gene worked in other organisms. “It was a high-risk idea,” he told me. Many scientists in the field, including Ward and Shimomura, still doubted that only one gene was involved or that GFP could be expressed in organisms other than jellyfish.
As Prasher describes it, his time at Woods Hole was a series of missed connections, psychological roadblocks, and bad breaks. He was one of only a handful of molecular biologists in a department populated by marine biologists and ecologists. “Very few people cared about what I was doing,” Prasher says. One day in 1989, he got a call from biologist Martin Chalfie at Columbia, who had heard about Prasher’s attempts to clone the GFP gene. To Chalfie, the fluorescent molecule was a potential tool to help him investigate the sense of touch in roundworms and to explore more broadly how organisms react to stimuli. Like Prasher, he also realized that GFP tags could provide a way to track the production of genes and proteins writ large. Prasher promised that he would get in touch with Chalfie once he had cloned the synthetic gene.
More than a year later, when Prasher finished cloning the gene, he called Chalfie’s lab only to learn that the researcher was on sabbatical at the University of Utah. Prasher says he left voice mail for Chalfie in Utah but never heard back; Chalfie does not recall getting any messages from him. Regardless, it wasn’t until September 1992 that Chalfie, now back at his Columbia lab, pushed forward with his GFP research. He lamented to a graduate student that he had never heard from Prasher; then a search on a computer database turned up a recent paper by Prasher reporting the cloning of the synthetic GFP gene. Within minutes, Chalfie had Prasher on the phone.
Chalfie’s call could have been a scientific lifeline for Prasher, but it came too late. Doubtful that he would be granted tenure, Prasher had already made up his mind to quit Woods Hole. A seminar he had given at the department earlier that year had not gone well. He had gotten so depressed by the lack of funding and mentorship that his daughter, Emma, who was 3 at the time, remarked one day to Gina, “Papa doesn’t smile anymore.” The next day, Prasher told the tenure committee to stop the review process and gave himself a year to find another job.
“I just didn’t fit,” he said. “I was so isolated.” He was convinced that he would struggle even if he did get tenure; he did not have the strength to do his research in solitude when so few cared about his work. “Doug doesn’t have the ‘Goddammit, you’re not going to stop me’ attitude,” Ward says. “He’s the kind of person who really needed a facilitator-type person or organization to say, ‘Look, I think you’re doing a great job.’ ”