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ScienceLives: Making Molecules (And Salamanders) Glow

Marc Zimmer uses computers to study how fluorescent proteins glow. Credit: Bob MacDonnell.

Marc Zimmer uses computers to study how fluorescent proteins glow. Credit: Bob MacDonnell.

When Marc Zimmer headed to college, he wanted to become a game warden. Exploring new frontiers while protecting big game, he thought, would satisfy his need for adventure. But on his way to fulfilling that dream, the South African native discovered chemistry — a vast world with molecules as beautiful as anything roaming a savannah. Today, he studies molecules that light up organisms in a rainbow of colors. He's most fascinated with green fluorescent protein (GFP), a molecule originally found in jellyfish that now helps scientists watch cellular events unfold inside living organisms and even engineer bacteria to detect bioterrorism agents. Zimmer, a biochemist at Connecticut College, is trying to figure out how to make fluorescent proteins glow even brighter. A key step in the process: getting students excited about chemistry, work for which he has received an NSF grant. One look at his axolotls (a type of salamander) that glow lime green under blue light could convince anyone that chemistry is cool. Zimmer answers ScienceLives' 10 questions below and many others in a feature article in the Sept. 2009 issue of Findings magazine, where he can answer your questions.

Geneticists can engineer mice and fish to have fluorescent proteins that light up certain parts of their bodies. The harmless process educates (and entertains). Credit: Bob MacDonnell.

Geneticists can engineer mice and fish to have fluorescent proteins that light up certain parts of their bodies. The harmless process educates (and entertains). Credit: Bob MacDonnell.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

The chemicals' use in medical and biological imaging, as well as their brilliant colors.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

Don't insult a crocodile before you have crossed the river. There are many rivers I want to cross in my life so that means ...

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

Like most South African kids, I bred silk worms. I still remember the excitement of getting them to spin their silk into specific shapes and controlling the color of the silk by changing their diet.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

I get to work with many young people and hopefully make a difference in their lives. There is always something new and unexpected (good and bad).

Like a lightbulb in a lamp, GFP's chromophore (green) sits inside the protein's soda-can structure (purple). Credit: Marc Zimmer, Connecticut College

Like a lightbulb in a lamp, GFP's chromophore (green) sits inside the protein's soda-can structure (purple). Credit: Marc Zimmer, Connecticut College

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be effective?

Be nosy and inquisitive about life, molecules and everything around you. Persevere, but know when to give up.

What are the societal benefits of your research?

Besides instilling a love and knowledge of chemistry in my students, I hope that our research results will be used to generate new brighter multicolored fluorescent probes.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

My students, my research advisors and my colleagues — even those that teach "Cults and Conversions."

Green fluorescent protein lights up an axolotl under ultraviolet light. Credit: Justin Rosenberg, Connecticut College

Green fluorescent protein lights up an axolotl under blue light. Credit: Justin Rosenberg, Connecticut College

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most?

How many projects end up in the landfill of ideas, where they join my inconclusive results, incorrect hypotheses and dark, dreary non-fluorescent proteins.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?

My GFP axolotls.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?

My iTunes library has over 5,000 songs. Some favorites are South African kwaito (e.g. Zola and Tkzee), reggae, ska and Bollywood soundtracks.

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation. It is part of an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick.

This page last reviewed on May 18, 2011