Sunday, 18 October 2009

a nobel dream

i had promised to write on this year's nobel prizes, and i am very enthusiastic on doing so, as it's a subject of personal interest (as are most of my posts, but this one has an exceptionally high ranking amongst them). however, in a discussion with some peers, i was to find that this is not a sentiment shared by the general populace :( and so i have refrained myself from doing an in-depth review of this year's prize in medicine & physiology. but, how could i! it's about telomerases! telo-wait-for-it-mer-fricken-aces (yeah, i made that harder to understand than i probably should, but humor me nps.)

anyway, in the same conversation(s) i find that people are more inclined and interested to hear a brief explanation about the subjects. as my friend appropriately said:
'well, i'm not into this research stuff and all, so i don't really think talking about this would grasp my attention for more than 2 minutes. if you were to tell me a summary, that's relevant...'

really, how?
'... because i would be able to impress chicks in a conversation. chicks dig smart guys.'

so yeah, this stems to the following, a summary of last year's (since i didn't have the opportunity to blog about it last year) and this year's nobel prizes in physiology & medicine, and chemistry (i would like to include physics, as well, but really, i don't know much about the subjects, myself).

physiology & medicine
the winners are harald zur hausen, françoise barré-sinoussi and luc montagnier, for their discoveries of 'the correlation between cervical cancer and human papilloma virus (hpv)' and 'human immunodeficiency virus (hiv)'. ok, so this is actually a pretty cool subject, because you guys probably know about hiv. check. and for the girls, you probably know about cervical cancer and hpv and pap smears and all that jazz. check. if you guys don't know, go ask your girlfriends. wow, this brief explanation thing is pretty easy!

note: the article on AIDS is (in my opinion) slightly outdated and controversial. it is wikipedia, after all. but the other articles seem legit.

to the laureates, osamu shimomura, martin chalfie and roger tsien for their discovery and further application of the green fluorescent protein, gfp. okay, so this discovery is freaking cool. it all starts when shimomura was studying jellyfish and their ability to go all shiny in the depths of the sea. what's odd was, the protein he isolated gave off a blue shinies, whereas the jellyfish gave off green shinies. kinda like going into a club with the wrong glowsticks.

so he does a bit more research and ends up with two different proteins, one being the blue flavour and another being the green flavour (hence, gfp). gfp would come to be so awesome because, integral to its own structure, it could absorb the blue light, and emit green light. for those familiar with fluorescence, the reason it doesn't emit the colour it absorbs, is because it loses some energy in the process, so the emitted wavelength is always larger than the absorbed (stokes shift). but, enough about that scientific jibber-jabber, i want to see shinies!

so anyway, chalfie hears about this, and goes 'wow, that's dope. this molecule be fluorescent on his own. don't need no brahs to hold him up, just keepin' it real. i'll go ahead and put this shizzle into some other creature and see if this nigz be fo' real.' and so he did.

introducing gfp into the translucent worm (nematode, actually, but roll with it. i've been simplifying stuff so far, anyway), c. elegans, he created a recombinant organism that expressed only gfp as an extra gene. the results were astounding.

people then went on to put gfp in other organisms, like this fruitfly. they even used other fluorophores (more shiny molecules) to emit photons of different wavelengths (different colours). this is where tsien comes in: by tweaking the chemical structure of gfp, he was able to make the different variants of gpf which are so commonly used today. in the c. elegans image below, three different types of neurones are coloured green, red and yellow.

so, what's so great about gfp? i have a dinosaur skeleton model at home that glows in the dark. where's my nobel prize? well, for one thing, gfp is a single, independent, small molecule. and you can 'tag' it on to many other molecules without interfering with most of their functions (refer back to the 'small' part, and how biological chemistry relies on a lot of steric interactions). for those interested in biochemistry, the possibilities were limitless. one super-awesome example would be the fluorescent labeling of dideoxyribonucleotide triphosphates (ddNTP) which can be used in automated sanger-sequencing. but that's a whole new area in itself. what's important is, gfp found its place in biological chemistry and hasn't looked back since. clearly fulfilling the criteria of a nobel prize in that it 'benefits humankind' and is 'widely applicable'.

huh. i ended up writing a pretty hardcore textwall. i guess i'll reserve the 2009 'summaries' for another post.


B H Obama said...

'ssup E, aren't you forgetting something/someone? Surely you need to write about the other Nobel prizes too right?

etc said...

i haven't forgotten anyone per se. just that i'm pretty sure that nobody has the attention span to weather textwall after textwall. having to write with limited characters forces upon me the choice of either writing superficially about all of them, or writing in a bit more detail on fewer subjects.

also, i'd rather write something on topics i believe i have some authority and background knowledge on.

but, if there's interest, i'm more than happy to write something on the physics and literature nobel prizes. the peace prize is a bit out of my scene, and the economics prize (which is actually not an original nobel prize. more on that another time) is hit or miss, for me.

(see how i tend to write more than necessary, anyway)

etc said...

someone asked me, 'why do you say gfp is "stand alone"? how is it different from aequorin?'

the simple answer is that, gfp is a fluorophore independent of requiring other molecules. aequorin, for example, needs a cofactor, calcium ions, to function, without which, its function is diminished by up to 90%. other molecules are even more dependent on helper molecules - instead of just ions, they might require other subunits, working in heteromeric configurations or polyhomomeric ones.

as to why this is the case, well, you'd have to go into the (quantum) physics of things. i'm not a pro on the matter, but what i do understand is that the resonance created by singular structures is limited in the absence of these required molecules (and the exception is gfp-like molecules). this is comparable to how there is a complex electron resonance cloud (or probability function, whichever you prefer) in benzene, which is absent in methane, even though they are kind of related in that methane could be viewed as a 'subunit' for benzene.

i hope this explanation isn't too complex, and answers your question!