How a fluorescent jellyfish – and federal dollars – helped fight AIDS

September 14, 2012

The road to Martin Chalfie's Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough began with a curious question: Why do green jellyfish glow in the dark?


(Source: Enrique Calvo -- Reuters)

By itself, the federally-funded research project may have seemed frivolous, particularly when taxpayer dollars were at stake. But the answer to the question ultimately led Chalfie and his collaborators to discover a groundbreaking new substance that allows scientists to observe how HIV, cancer, and other diseases spread in the body.

"Research is an investment in the long run. You can't predict what you're going to get," said Chalfie, whose research on "green fluorescent protein" was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.

At a Capitol Hill ceremony on Thursday, Chalfie, Osamu Shimomura and Roger Y. Tsien became the first recipients of the "Golden Goose Awards," which Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) created in order to show how seemingly obscure research funded by the government can result in revolutionary, unexpected scientific breakthroughs.

Another award recipient was Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes, whose discovery of laser technology in the 1950s began with an odd-sounding quest to amplify microwave radiation. A third group of scientists was honored for discovering a new material for bone grafts by studying the composition of coral. (Here's a video of the winning scientists explaining their research findings and the role of government funding.)

It's been a long-standing Washington pasttime to single out similarly odd-sounding projects as a sign of government waste — the "sex life of the screwworm," for instance. But that can lead to big misconceptions about how scientific breakthroughs work, the awardees explained. In Washington, "they like to think they can foresse what's needed. You've got to be open-minded," said Townes.

Funding for basic scientific research has retained bipartisan support, and it's so far been shielded from major budget cuts. But Cooper warns that there are still threats on the horizon. "Gridlock means sequestration, which means devastating cuts to science," he said. In such "budgetary emergencies," science needs to be prioritized, Cooper continued. "I'm calling it 'women and children first.'"

Cooper was joined by a handful of other House members — including one Republican, Rep. Charlie Dent — at the awards ceremony. But they all had to excuse themselves early. "The anti-science forces have just called for five votes," Cooper explained.

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Ezra Klein | September 14, 2012