Martin Chalfie

Nobel Prize in Chemistry


When asked what animal has transformed biomedical studies the most, it’s easy to think of mice, rats, fruit flies, and worms — the workhorses of scientific research. But some might say it’s a more exotic organism: the jellyfish. 

Roughly half of all jellyfish species can produce their own light, thanks to the green fluorescent protein, or GFP. When inserted into the genes of other organisms and produced, GFP can act as a torchlight, helping scientists to “see” what’s going on at the molecular level. Proteins labelled with GFP, a sort of glow-in-the-dark tag, can be tracked — when and where they are produced, how they move between and within cells.

Today, scientists use GFP in a myriad of applications, from observing how cells behave during embryonic development to tracking how cancer cells spread. Although there are other fluorescent proteins, GFP is especially useful because it glows readily without help from additional chemicals or enzymes.

In 1994, Martin Chalfie demonstrated how the gene could be inserted into the DNA of other organisms, allowing them to make their own GFP. He proved this first in the Escherichia coli bacterium and later in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans — discoveries implying GFP could be used in virtually any organism. For his work, Prof Chalfie was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, a prize he shared with Osamu Shimomura and Roger Y. Tsien.

Prof Chalfie was born in Chicago, Illinois. His father was a professional guitarist and his mother ran a clothing business. Prof Chalfie remembers being interested in science and nature from an early age, playing with microscopes and chemistry sets, and even “sneaking into the chemistry supply area in high school to get ammonium dichromate to make ‘flaming volcanoes.’” 

Prof Chalfie majored in Biochemisty as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he was captain of the swim team. After graduating, he worked several part-time jobs, including teaching, selling dresses for his parents’ company, and setting up rock concerts in the park during summertime. A summer job working in a laboratory led him to return to Harvard to do a Ph.D. in physiology.  He later did postdoctoral research at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, working with Sydney Brenner and John Sulston. Prof Chalfie returned to the US in 1982 and joined the faculty at Columbia University, where he conducted his Nobel Prize-winning work.  

To this day, Prof Chalfie continues to teach at Columbia and investigates how nerve cell develops and function in C. elegans. “What we’re seeing now are absolutely wonderful new tools that allow us to get a fuller, much more complete view of how systems fit together in cells,” he says. “You often hear people talk about the golden age of cinema or art as some time in the past, but for science, we’re always in the golden age.”

Prof Chalfie is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Outside of research, he dedicates much of his time serving as chair of the Committee on Human Rights of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.