In 1988, American molecular biologist, Douglas Prasher, received a two-year, $200,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to clone the gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP), the protein that gives the jellyfish its glow. When his funding ran out, Prasher shared his findings with a number of other scientists. These included Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien, two men who would go on to win the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with a third man, Osamu Shimomura) for their work on GFP. Prasher was not included with them, as only three individuals can share in a single Nobel Prize. Chalfie said of Prasher’s contribution at the time of the Nobel Prize announcement:
“(Douglas Prasher’s) work was critical and essential for the work we did in our lab. They could’ve easily given the prize to Douglas and the other two and left me out.”
But they didn’t. Indeed, by the time the prize – which carries with it a $1.4 million cheque – was announced, Prasher was unable to find work in the scientific field and had relocated to Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife and three children where he was working at car dealership for $8.50 an hour. In interview with National Public Radio in 2008, Prasher said that – after the funding for the project ran out – he was unable to find another job in science, so he took a job working as a courtesy shuttle bus driver in Huntsville. In the NPR broadcast, one of his former colleagues called Prasher’s current situation a “staggering waste of talent.”
Prasher didn’t seem to mind his new line of work, however. “I never thought I would enjoy working with people so much,” he said. “’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.” But the job didn’t pay enough to support his family. “Our savings is gone; just totally gone.”
Despite this, Prasher said he didn’t have any regrets about giving away the gene.”At that time, I knew I was going to get out of it; my funding had already run out,” Prasher said. “When you’re using public funds, I personally believe you have an obligation to share. I put my heart and soul into it, but if I kept that stuff, it wasn’t gonna go anyplace … 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.”
Chalfie and Tsien invited Prasher and his wife to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony as their guests, and all three men thanked Prasher in their speeches.
And the story does have something of a happy ending. In June 2010, Prasher once again took up a job working as a scientist.
As for his place as the unknown “fourth man”, it seems his was not an isolated case. Karl Grandin, director of the Centre for History of Science at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, told the Guardian newspaper: “Anyone with any insight into how science works knows there’s always a fourth person”.
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