Martin Chalfie

Prof. Dr. Martin Chalfie

United States 
Columbia University, New York 
Profs. Osamu Shimomura and Roger Y. Tsien 


The Nobel Prize has several rules which often leave great work unrecognised. It is not awarded posthumously, for example, and there can only be three recipients for each category.

Thus in 2008 the vital contribution of Douglas Prasher was overlooked by the committee, but not by the recipients.
In 1992 Prasher, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, isolated the gene that caused green fluorescent protein to glow. Sadly his discovery only came at the end of three years of funding by the American Cancer Society and he currently does not even work in the science field, but he freely gave the gene to both Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien, both of whom invited him to the ceremony to thank him.

Chalfie used the gene to demonstrate the value of GFP as a luminous genetic tag for various biological phenomena by colouring six individual cells in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with GFP. He correctly guessed that, unlike most forms of bioluminescence, GFP required no additional enzyme to create light by chemical reaction. His lab uses the simple nematode to investigate aspects of nerve cell development and function.

Chalfie’s interest in GFP was sparked by a 1988 seminar by Paul Brehm about bioluminescent organisms and he has published over 200 papers on the subject including the highly-regarded Green Fluorescent Protein as a Marker for Gene Expression, co-written in 1994 with others including Prasher.

Martin Chalfie was born in Chicago in January 1947 and went to Harvard in 1965. He initially intended to study mathematics but soon switched to biochemistry, although he admits to having doubts about his ability and hedged his career bets with studies in law, theatre and Russian literature.

After graduating in 1969 he took several part-time jobs, including teaching and selling couture for his parents’ dressmaking company before joining a research lab at Yale in 1971. His success there, including his first publication, encouraged him to return to Harvard where he gained his Ph.D under Robert Pelman in 1977.

He performed post-doctoral research on C. elegans at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, with (2002 laureates) Sydney Brenner and John Sulston. In 1982 Chalfie joined the faculty of Columbia University in New York where he performed his Nobel-winning work, aided by his wife and colleague Tulle Hazelrigg. Hazelrigg was among the first to attach GFP to other proteins, allowing scientists to watch where individual proteins go within a cell simply by watching for the tell-tale green spark.

Chalfie was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 but another telling accolade was the Harold S Ulen trophy he received as captain of the Harvard swimming team for his ‘leadership, sportsmanship and team cooperation’ – qualities he displayed by freely passing on his work to other researchers, just as he had received the baton from Douglas Prasher.

Martin Chalfie  is part of the exhibition project "Sketches of Science" by Volker Steger

Exhibition "Sketches of Science" by Volker Steger - Locations & Dates

Martin Chalfie's Sketch of Science
Martin Chalfie's Sketch of Science

By Volker Steger

Me: “So, where do you work?”
Him: “Work? I only have an academic affi liation!”
At least today he doesnʼt look like work. But his drawing
does. He draws a fl uorescent protein from a jelly-fi sh that
marks genes in a worm: And it becomes a glowing worm!
This is stunning, right? So, dear readers, look at this drawing
and donʼt stare at Martin Chalfi eʼs sandals!

Ich: „Und wo arbeiten Sie?“
Er: „Arbeiten? Ich habe nur eine wissenschaftliche Anbindung!“
Zumindest heute sieht er nicht nach Arbeit aus. Aber seine Zeichnung! Er zeichnet
ein fl uoreszierendes Protein von einer Qualle, mit dem die Gene in einem Wurm
markiert werden. Und der entwickelt sich zu einem Glühwürmchen!
Das ist doch atemberaubend, nicht wahr? Also, liebe Leser, schauen Sie sich
diese Zeichnung an und starren Sie nicht so auf Martin Chalfi es Sandalen!

Lighting the Path to Discovery

by Adam Smith

This story begins in the early 1960s when Osamu Shimomura was interested in the problem of bioluminescence; how do some organisms produce light? Illustrated in the left-hand part of the image is a glowing jellyfish that emits green light from certain cells. But Shimomura’s initial studies isolated a bioluminescent protein that gave off not green, but blue light. Looking further he found that this blue light was absorbed by another protein, which in turn re-emitted the green light that we observe. Shimamura’s new protein, later called green fluorescent protein (GFP), and shown in the test tube in the picture, had this wonderful property that when you shone blue light on it gave you green light back. The discovery of GFP earned Shimamura his share in this Nobel Prize.

Martin Chalfie heard about Shimomura’s work in a talk in April 1989, and realized that GFP’s properties could make it an ideal cellular beacon for the transparent model organisms he studied. So the right-hand side of the picture describes the work done in Chalfie’s laboratory in collaboration with Douglas Prasher, the person who isolated the DNA encoding the protein GFP. Chalfie first put this DNA into bacteria, and top right you see colonies of bacteria growing on a plate. Some of the colonies are now making GFP, so shining blue light on them makes them glow brightly green.

Next they took the DNA and put it into the animal they had been studying, the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Introducing GFP into only certain nerve cells meant that they could now observe those nerve cells individually glowing green when they shone blue light on the worms. Demonstrating that you could label cells or parts of the cells with this fluorescent protein opened up the possibility of following biology in living tissues. For the first time researchers could observe processes as they change, whether it was cell division, changes in organelles within the cell, or cells migrating and developing.

“One of the things the GFP story says to me very strongly is that one needs to study all of life,” says Chalfie. “Shimomura was studying a very fundamental problem that has actually nothing to do with human biology, human health; and that is how do some organisms generate light? And this basic research has proven to be exceptionally useful


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Martin Chalfie


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