The Man Who Missed the Nobel Prize


Douglas Prasher played a key role in the work that won the Nobel Chemistry prize this week.  Prasher did not share in the $1.4 million winnings.

Instead, we're told he drives a courtesy van at Bill Penny Toyota in Huntsville, Alabama.

The prize was awarded to three men: Osamu Shimomura, then at Princeton; Martin Chalfie of Columbia; and Roger Tsien of the University of California at San Diego.  Their accomplishment: developing Green Fluorescent Protein, or GFP, a key tool scientists now use to observe biological processes in living things.

Where did they get GFP?  From Prasher.

Prasher, according to people in the field, "was the first person to realize the potential of GFP as a tracer molecule. In 1987 he got the idea that sparked the GFP revolution. He thought that GFP from a jellyfish could be used to report when a protein was being made in a cell."  The fish in the picture above glow brightly (and harmlessly, we're told) because of GFP, which has made it possible for scientists to see how diseases spread or respond to treatment.

In the 1980s, working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, he cloned the protein--but then ran out of grant money.  When Chalfie and Tsien called him some years later, he willingly shared his work.  His story is nicely told by Steve Doyle of the Huntsville Times. Prasher moved there to work for a NASA contractor, but has not been able to find work since in biochemistry.

"Of course, I want to get back into science; that's a no-brainer," Prasher tells Doyle.  "But in this town, I don't think it's going to work."

How did he end up driving a courtesy van at a car dealer?  He needed to pay his bills, he says.  His $10-an-hour pay doesn't quite do it, but he has family reasons for staying in Huntsville. 

Bob Grant, Associate Editor of The Scientist, asks, "Is there anyone out there who might have a research position open for him?" 

Prasher, through it all, insists he is not angry at the Nobel winners. "I'm really happy for them."

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