Douglas Prasher: The Man Who Gave Away A Nobel Prize And Became A $10/Hr Bus Driver

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Oct 12, 2008, 12:14:31 PM10/12/08
************ Tragic Example of What Not To Do In Science

"(Prasher's) work was critical and essential for the work we did in
our lab," Chalfie said. "They could've easily given the prize to
Douglas and the other two and left me out."


Glowing Gene's Discoverer Left Out Of Nobel Prize
by Dan Charles

Morning Edition, October 9, 2008 · The Nobel Prize in chemistry was
awarded this week to three scientists working in the United States
with a jellyfish protein that glows in the dark. But the scientist who
found the gene for that protein, and gave it to the eventual Nobel
winners, is no longer working in the field. He now drives a shuttle
bus for an auto dealership.

The three chemistry Nobel Prize winners have advanced our
understanding of the inner workings of cells by using the jellyfish
protein to tag the tiny, intricate parts.

But to do that, back in the 1990s, those scientists first needed the
gene that creates the glowing protein.

One of the winners, Roger Tsien of the University of California, San
Diego, says he was lucky. At just the right time, a researcher named
Douglas Prasher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in
Massachusetts isolated the gene that Tsien wanted.

"So I found his phone number, called him up, and to my amazement he
was willing to give out the gene," Tsien says.

Another of the Nobel laureates, Martin Chalfie of New York's Columbia
University, also got the gene from Prasher.

But Prasher, it turns out, no longer works in science. He is now
driving a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership in Huntsville, Ala.

"I got a hard luck story," he says.

Prasher doesn't have any regrets about giving away the gene. Tsien and
Chalfie did great work, he says, which he probably couldn't have done
because the National Institutes of Health had rejected his funding

"At that time, I knew I was going to get out of it; my funding had
already run out," Prasher says.

He went to work for a laboratory run by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, then took a job with a NASA contractor in Huntsville. But
two-and-a-half years ago, NASA cut his project and Prasher lost his

He tried to find a job in science but failed. So he went to work at
the car dealership.

"I never thought I would enjoy working with people so much. 'Cause
doing science is kind of a loner thing; but doing this, I meet new
people every day, and I hear all kinds of stories, some of which I
don't need to hear. Because I'm kind of a bartender," Prasher says.

But the job does not pay enough to support his family.

"Our savings is gone; just totally gone," he says.

Prasher is still looking for a research job, but he worries that after
two-and-a-half years, his knowledge and skills may be out of date.

That's not what some of his former colleagues say. One called
Prasher's current situation a "staggering waste of talent."

In December, Tsien and Chalfie, along with Japanese researcher Osamu
Shimomura, will go to Stockholm and receive almost a half-million

Prasher says, "If they're ever in Huntsville, they need to take me out
to dinner."


The scientist, the jellyfish protein and the Nobel prize that got
It is the ultimate story of what might have been.
By Philip Sherwell in New York
Last Updated: 9:26PM BST 11 Oct 2008

Douglas Prasher was preparing breakfast before leaving for work at a
car dealership in Huntsville, Alabama, when he heard a report on the
radio about this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The prestigious $1.4 million prize had just been awarded to three US-
based scientists working with a jellyfish protein that glows in the
dark and offers new prospects for cancer research.

The news last week stunned Mr Prasher. For if life had worked out
differently, he might also have ended up as a Nobel laureate rather
than driving people to and from the Bill Penney Toyota dealership in
the complementary shuttle.

Mr Prasher is the biochemist who discovered the gene for the protein.
But when his funds from the American Cancer Society ran out in the
early 1990s, he voluntarily passed on his findings to the eventual
Nobel winners.

Mr Prasher, 57, subsequently worked on various other government
science projects before moving to Huntsville to join a Nasa space
science research programme. But when that mission was closed down in
2006, he ended up unemployed for a year before taking the $10-an-hour
job as a shuttle driver.

"I really enjoy this work," he told The Sunday Telegraph after
dropping off a customer on Friday morning. "Science is a bit of
loner's world while here I'm dealing with people every day. The
conversations are always interesting, sometimes too interesting.

"I feel like a bartender at times. If folks talk too much about their
problems, I say I'm going to have to charge them as a counsellor, not
a driver."

The prize was jointly awarded to Roger Tsien of the University of
California and Martin Chalfie of Columbia University, who have
conducted the recent research, and Osamu Shimomura, the US-based
Japanese scientist who first isolated the glowing jellyfish protein.

Dr Tsien and Dr Chalfie have both acknowledged and praised Mr
Prasher's role in discovering the gene that creates the protein. "I
found his phone number, called him up and to my amazement he was
willing to give out the gene," Dr Tsien recalled last week.

Mr Prasher, who is married with three children, insisted that he feels
no bitterness about how things turned out. "Do I feel cheated or left
out? No, not at all. I had run out of funds and these guys showed how
the protein could be used and that was the key thing."

Nonetheless, he is now heavily in debt, has suffered from depression
and hopes that the burst of publicity about green fluorescent protein
could give him a final chance at a job back in the scientific field.

And if any of the newly-crowned Nobel winners pass through Huntsville?

"Then they get to take me out to dinner," he said. "And I choose the


Shuttle driver reflects on Nobel snub
By Aaron Gouveia
October 11, 2008 6:00 AM

Twenty years ago, Douglas Prasher was one of the driving forces behind
research that earned a Nobel Prize in chemistry this week. But today,
he's just driving.

Prasher, 57, works as a courtesy shuttle operator at a Huntsville,
Ala., Toyota dealership. While his former colleagues will fly to
Stockholm in December to accept the Nobel Prize and a $1.4 million
check, the former Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist will
be earning $10 an hour while trying to put two of his children through

"It's a cutthroat world out there," Prasher said during a phone
interview yesterday.

Despite his contributions to the groundbreaking research, a Nobel
Prize can only be shared among three people.

In 1961, Osamu Shimomura of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods
Hole discovered the green fluorescent protein that gives the Aequoria
Victoria jellyfish its glow. In the 1980s, Prasher began working with
the protein, designated as GFP, after hypothesizing the gene
responsible for the protein's fluorescent properties could be used to
help view formerly invisible molecular functions.

After the American Cancer Society gave Prasher a $220,000 grant in
1988, he set about isolating and copying the GFP gene.

That caught the attention of Martin Chalfie, another of the Nobel
Prize winners announced this week. The Columbia University researcher
said yesterday that the organism he was working with at the time was
transparent, and he hoped Prasher's work on the luminescent jellyfish
protein would provide a way for him to see its molecular functions.

Four years later, as Prasher's grant dried up and he was no longer
able to continue his own research, he voluntarily gave samples of the
GFP gene to Chalfie.

The cloned gene was also given to Roger Tsien, the third Nobel Prize
winner, who has been in the forefront of fluorescent protein research
ever since.

"(Prasher's) work was critical and essential for the work we did in
our lab," Chalfie said. "They could've easily given the prize to
Douglas and the other two and left me out."

But instead of focusing on his hard luck, Prasher said he is happy for
his former colleagues. While it was perfectly within his rights not to
share the cloned gene with others, Prasher said he felt an obligation
to give his research a chance to turn into something significant, even
if he was no longer a part of it.

"When you're using public funds, I personally believe you have an
obligation to share," Prasher said. "I put my heart and soul into it,
but if I kept that stuff, it wasn't gonna go anyplace."

David Mark Welch, assistant scientist of evolutionary biology at MBL,
said this sort of situation is a natural byproduct of working in an
industry where competition for grant money can be intense. Some grants
have 100 applications but will only fund 10 requests, Welch said. That
means competition — even from fellow colleagues at the same
institution — can be fierce and scientists often feel the need to keep
all unpublished research a secret.

Welch praised Prasher's actions and said many researchers are finding
it easier to obtain larger grants if they collaborate instead of
alienate. "You have to put aside any sort of personal desires to be
better than everyone else because if your grant isn't funded, you're
in trouble," he said.

Prasher knows that trouble all too well.

After stints at a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory and
working for NASA in Huntsville, Prasher was out of work for a year
before he took a job at the car dealership.

Prasher said he has suffered from health problems and depression, some
of which stems from being out of science for so long. But his sense of
humor remains intact.

"If Marty and Roger want to show me some gratitude, they can always
send some cash," Prasher said. "I'm accepting gifts and donations."

Prasher hopes the Nobel Prize exposure will lead to a job offer in his
field, ideally back to Falmouth, where he said he lived happily for 14


See Prasher's publications at

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