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Bright Ideas From Down Below
by Jacqueline Ruttimann
It started out like any other shopping trip. Sergey Lukyanov was in his local pet store buying supplies for his four freshwater and saltwater aquariums when he saw a rare prize: a bright red bubble-tip anemone.
Most customers would have appreciated the anemone for its outer beauty, but Lukyanov, a bioorganic chemist, was more interested in what it held inside.
“A gut feeling told me that this animal must contain a beautiful red fluorescent protein,” says Lukyanov, an HHMI international research scholar at the Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry in Moscow, Russia.
In the lab, scientists use these fluorescent flares as biological highlighters for visualizing proteins or genes within a cell or organism. The first fluorescent protein used in research, green fluorescent protein, came from the crystal jelly jellyfish. Other proteins have come from aquatic animals such as the mushroom-shaped sea pansy, which glows green or blue when disturbed.
In the late 1990s, Lukyanov discovered the first set of coral fluorescent proteins, adding yellow and red to the color range. HHMI investigator Roger Tsien of the University of California, San Diego, further modified Lukyanov's red fluorescent protein to reduce its tendency to aggregate, and he created more colors in the red range.
Illustration: Peter Arkle