Friday, October 10, 2008

the sad story of douglas prasher

Dear Zubin:

Today I came across a news item which I thought I would share with you.

This is about the Nobel Prize for chemistry. The prize was given to three chemists, who had worked out how the jellyfish manages to glow in the dark. The jellyfish does this by generating the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), which glows. The jellyfish grows this protein under instructions from a particular gene, and the importance of this discovery is that this gene can be added to other dna cells, and can be used to trace when these cells become active. It is a very important tool in biochemistry today, in all sorts of investigations.

But the point is that this nobel prize would not have been possible if these chemists did not have access to this gene.

It turns out that the gene was isolated by a researcher called Douglas Prasher (see this illustrated history). Prasher was also the first to note that GFP could be used in this way as a fluorescent tracer on genes. This is the process that was finally completed by the scientists who got the Nobel (see this report at forbes magazine).

When the scientists separately requested Prasher for the gene he gave it to them freely. Roger Tsien of UCSD said in an interview:
"So I found his phone number, called him up, and to my amazement he was willing to give out the gene."

After Prasher was mentioned by Tsien in several interviews, some journalists started wondering where he was today. Clearly, Prasher is a biologist of some importance. However, it turned out he did not get tenure at Wood's Hole and joined industry. He was eventually laid off from Pfizer some years back, and some journalists from NPR traced him down - it turns out that he has been driving a limousine service in Huntsville Alabama for the last two years.

NPR reporter Dan Charles says:
Prasher doesn't have any regrets about giving away the gene. Tsien and Chalfie did great work, he says, which he probably couldn't have done because the National Institutes of Health had rejected his funding proposals.

The story broke on October 9, and got a lot of coverage the next day - an excellent wikipedia page on him came up almost immediately. Possibly you and dada and mummum are already discussing this, but I thought I would share it with you anyway.

Quite a sad story, wouldn't you say, for such a man?


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