Osamu Shimomura was 16 when the B-29 bomber that brought nuclear destruction to Nagasaki flew over his house. He still remembers the deafening drawl of the engine. And the 30 seconds of blindness following the explosion. And the black rain.
Nagasaki Medical College was completely destroyed by the nuclear blast, forcing the pharmacy school to relocate to a temporary campus near Shimomura’s family home. Despite no prior interest in the life sciences, the proximity of the new pharmacy school persuaded him to enrol in 1948.
Twelve years later, Shimomura took up a post at Princeton University with full government funding to study the nervous system of jellyfish. While working there, he discovered why certain species of jellyfish glow green under ultraviolet light. The startling effect is due to the presence of GFP, or green fluorescent protein, in the soft tissues of some species.
Hang on. Government-funded scientists studying glowing jellyfish? Isn’t that classic academic frivolity with no obvious human benefit? Did Osamu Shimomura leave the economic stricture and limitations of post-war Japan so that deep-pocketed American taxpayers could indulge his curious whim?
The quotation machine that was Sarah Palin – how we miss her entertaining babble – famously addressed this issue in 2009 during her ill-fated tilt at the vice presidency. At a press conference she complained that American taxes were being wasted on ‘fruit fly research in Paris, France’. Quite apart from the deliciously sour redundancy of her quotation’s last word, Palin’s criticism of profligate public spending was rightly ridiculed at the time.
Research on fruit flies has proved particularly useful in studying the nervous system. Efforts across the globe have delivered extraordinary new insight into autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Thanks to these studies, we are now beginning to understand the root of these disorders in such detail that we may soon be able to design new strategies to combat them. Fruit fly research in Paris, France, not so bad then.
One can easily imagine a 1960s wag decrying Shimomura’s ‘jellyfish research in Princeton, New Jersey’ as a waste of public money. Indeed, many of Shimomura’s peers at the time did, viewing his work as a solution in search of a problem. In 2008, however, Shimomura was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with Roger Tsien and Martin Chalfie for their work on GFP. Tsien and Chalfie had earned their share of the prize by turning GFP into a molecular tag, which can be stuck on to any protein that interests a cell biologist.
Much like the tags that are used to track the migration of wild animals, GFP allow us to visualise the movement and activities of important cellular proteins with powerful microscopes. Because proteins carry out almost all the functional work that cells undertake – movement, cell division, repairs, and so on – understanding their function and malfunction in disease is of great interest. Cancer and HIV research would not be where it is today without GFP.
Shimomura didn’t know the bomb would drop on his hometown that day in 1945, changing his life forever. Nor did he know that GFP would become so important in biological research. That’s because there’s no roadmap for scientific discovery. The electron was discovered with no practical objective in mind and now we have a world run by electronics. The X-ray was useless when it was first described in 1895, but last week it was used to find a crack in my friend’s clavicle*.
Shimomura’s discovery of GFP was fired by a desire to understand the world that he inhabits, a thirst for knowledge that would have pleased Plato and Aristotle. Such research, without a direct practical output, is called ‘basic research’. Applied scientists like Tsien and Chalfie seek to use science to intervene in the world; in their specific case, making invisible proteins visible. The point is that applied science requires a foundation of basic research, using it as a platform to provide practical solutions to present problems.
So why does the British government pump millions of pounds into basic research? Why does a yearly £34m of British taxpayers’ money fund the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 170-mile atom smasher on the Franco-Swiss border? The answer is… we don’t know. We can’t be sure what the LHC or other areas of basic research will deliver on a practical level. What we do know is that they will provide incredible leaps forward in scientific understanding. These developments will act as an ‘innovation investment’, delivering dividends when a new generation of geniuses invents the next world-changing technology. So let’s hope that basic research continues to receive funding, whether Sarah Palin likes it or not.
*Thank you and all due credit to Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing.