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Vincent Pieribone is Associate Fellow, The John B. Pierce Laboratory, and Associate Professor, Cellular & Molecular Physiology and Neurobiology, Yale University School of Medicine. He attended New York University College[…]

There’s an important protein in reefs that has allowed all fields of science to see the working of cells that were normally invisible. The only problem: we’re destroying the reefs.

Question: What led you to start working with green fluorescent protein?

Vincent Pieribone: It was discovered a while ago that there was this strange protein, and these guys actually last year got the Nobel Prize for this protein because it’s just so incredible.  There’s a really great story because it’s a sort of story about a guy who, back in the ‘60’s, was studying this jellyfish.  Probably nobody in the world cared about.  And he studied this jellyfish and the jellyfish gives off light and he was interested in why the jellyfish gave off light, and how it gave off light.  And so working in this tiny lab up in Washington state, he sort of extracted the chemical that gave out light and then there was this other protein that was just sort of a contaminate that produced green light in the animal.  And again, an obscure journal – the entire discovery is a footnote in an article that I think nobody read.  For 30 years nobody read the article.  I think 10 people read it really. 

And then it was discovered that that little protein, you could put the DNA and then the DNA revolution happened during that time.  You could take the DNA from that and you could put it in any organism and it makes the organism essentially fluoresce, which is this phenomenon where if you shine one color light, the cells will – if you shine blue light, the cells will glow green.  Right?  A phenomenon we scientists found it fascinating to use. 

So, this obscure discovery studied in the obscure animal has become, first of all a multi-billion dollar industry as well that it’s just an amazing revolution in our field.  It’s allowed all fields of science to see the working of cells and see the working of biology, which was normally invisible to us.  So, this single protein is now expressed all over the world in all sorts of animals and organism in all sorts of research labs allowing this non-invasive study.  And we saw this early on when this paper first came out and thought maybe there are other proteins out there because this one is green, maybe can find other colored proteins and then a paper came out saying you can find them, so we – we are divers, my friend David Gruber, who is a Professor here at Cooney, we decided that we were going to go down to Australia, which is the place to go for coral.  And we spent all month there diving and looking around with a permit we had from the Australian government, we collected these tiny little fragments of coral that were just lying around and using these really powerful molecular techniques could clone proteins, florescent proteins from those and we cloned about 30 or 40 proteins from them that were new.  Different colors and different characteristics that we’re now applying to these molecules that I was telling you about.  These little sensors that were taking these little coral proteins and attaching them to other proteins and making sensors for recording brain activity.  And we’re still in the field these days.  We’re heading to Israel in a few months to probably clone a few more of these things out of the Red Sea because there is just an unlimited supply of them in the ocean with all sorts of features that we don’t know about yet. 

In fact the probe that we’re interested in may already be out there in the ocean.  There may be a volted sensitive one that we just haven’t found yet.  So much of the ocean and these things remains undiscovered genetically so.  It’s been an exciting kind of a pastime to get me out of the lab a little bit, but it’s been exhilarating to learn about how bizarre the world is underwater and how bizarre the biology is of those organisms and how many tools, basically tools that can help us cure diseases and be used for all kinds of things are there just sitting there for people to go in and look for before they all vanish because we are destroying them at an unprecedented rate. 

We discovered going down as we’ve seen since we were young that coral reefs are probably like the bell weather of the environments that are being destroyed.  Like they’re getting destroyed faster than rain forests, but nobody really knows it because people don’t see them.  But I used to dive in the Florida Keys when I was a kid and there’s nothing to dive in the Florida Keys anymore.  Basically the entire dive business in Florida is gone because they destroyed all the reefs in Florida and the reefs in Florida; they’re just mounds of dirt now.  And there are some reefs in West Palm that’s the only place that’s left because there’s no agriculture in West Palm.  But in Florida there’s agriculture, there’s divers that damage it, and it’s a disaster.  And it’s a national park.  It’s crazy.  It’s completely destroyed.  And so we have to fly to these exotic places, these sorts of third-world countries that still have beautiful reefs intact.  It’s a sad – it’s the only place in America we have reefs, is Florida.  It’s the only place with warm enough weather and they’re just devastated by our bad behavior and it’s very sad.  So we watch these essentially what we call them libraries of ancient evolutionary information, these sequences that have developed over billions of years just vanishing, like overnight.  Like they’re just gone.  And those things will take another billion years to come back.  You know?  And so it’s sad to see these answers and these solutions that are out there that we haven’t reached yet just disappearing before our eyes. 

So we’re out there trying to sort of Noah’s Ark them and try to pull them up and rescue their DNA before it’s lost.  Because that DNA represents this incremental improvement process that nature does to solve these problems happening in billions of different species, moving along through history, and by wiping them out, these seemingly unimportant little organisms, we just lose that.  God forbid that that jellyfish was lost.  You know, two years after he finished cloning that thing, it disappeared completely from the bay where he found it.  It just disappeared.  Overnight. It was there in droves and went away one day and nobody knows why it went away, but you know, it probably has something to do with us.  It’s been there for a thousand years of something and now it’s gone.  So, if he had missed that opportunity, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation and there would have been no Nobel Prize last year in this if that was gone. 

So for us it’s a daily reminder of how sad that story is of conservation is and how people can talk and talk and talk about what’s going on, but we see it every day when you go diving.  There is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that global warming increasing all of these things in the ocean and human encroachment and high levels of bacteria and things in the water are just eliminating these treasure-troves of – they’re not just beautiful to look at and dive on, they represent the second most complex bio diverse ecosystems in the world, bar none.  And when they’re gone, we’ve lost an enormous treasure that’s matched only by the rainforest, which we are also cutting down.  It’s amazing. 

So, not to be a downer, but that’s something we’re out there trying to kind of do as much cloning as we can because we’re not going to fool ourselves to thing that humankind is really going to change it’s behavior in the near future.  These things probably have – the sad thing is, those reefs will probably be gone in a hundred years and it’s unbelievable to say that.  This round of reefs have been on the earth for, I don’t know, 50,000 years, and I’m saying in another 100 years most will be gone?  And that’s a very conservative estimate. 

Question: What can scientists do to rally together? 

Vincent Pieribone: We rally.  It’s just a matter of nobody gives a damn what we say.  I mean, this ridiculous Copenhagen business.  I mean, it’s just this political, politicized crap.  Most of us just can’t be bothered to listen to that.  You know, I mean, in the last election, they asked all these Republican candidates how many of them believed in evolution, and they all said, no.  I mean, it’s ludicrous. We all live and work with evolution every day in the labs.  It’s a fact, right.  We know the sun’s coming up in the morning.  We still find ourselves in a position of arguing with people about something that – we don’t even argue any more.  There’s no point in it.  But it doesn’t really change our lives.  We accept it as a fact.  But when the leadership of our country doesn’t even accept that, it’s just amazing to me.  I don’t know how getting the concept of global warming out – you have all these scientists diligently working on this and then there’s this notion of some sort of huge conspiracy amongst these guys who get paid nothing.  They get nothing to do this.  They have no vested interest in it whatsoever, right.  I mean, they’re not getting paid off by anything.  They’re just doing it and discovering it and have been discovering it, and yet it’s politicized into this agenda like, I don’t know. 

I can imagine there might be an agenda on the other side of why we wouldn’t want to stop using petroleum for example, there might be a reason.  There might be people with interest in that little material, but it’s just so depressing, I guess, as scientists. I was doing an interview about scientists in film and they asked me to come back and talk about it.  And I had a whole notion in my head about scientists are mistreated in film and how they always end up looking like crazy guys with wild hair, making mistakes and always rushing to greet the aliens just before they blow the world up kind of view of the scientists.  But then I started reading about it and thinking about it a lot and studying scientists in film, and I realized that it’s actually almost the opposite effect of scientist’s appearance in society.  Especially in films is that sometimes they’re viewed as having even more influence in film than they actually do. 

You know I always remember I was inspired when I was younger by Mr. Spock because, like I said, he was always on the deck and he’d run into something and he’d turn to the science guy, “Tell us what’s going on here.”  Like there was somehow a Mr. Spock in the White House that every time, you know, the President would find something – what about this global warming and he’s turn to the guy.  And we used to have this thing in the National Academy of Science, which we still have, which is set up to be exactly that.  You know, because the President was a like a farmer, you know, and he’s like, “I don’t’ know anything about science.” Throw that question to the National Academy and the National Academy – a bunch of guys would sit around and think about it and come up with a – you know, it was an independent kind of body and they would give him an answer and he’d kind of take it.  Maybe he’d react on it.  But today it’s a joke.  They don’t listen to anything they say.  They constantly put reports out and then they politicize – it’s not like they ask them a question honestly to get their honest answer. 

And so I realized when I went back and did the interview, no in fact, it’s the fact that the appearance the scientists some how have some influence on the process of government.  And I think in the end, unfortunately, they really don’t.  sometimes people listen, sometime people don’t.  But they don’t really direct much policy.  You can’t see that in any way, shape, or form, and that’s probably the saddest realization I have – not that I want to have any influence, but I just thing that maybe the scientific approach to dealing with some things in the world, like for example, global warming, like energy issues, those are scientific problem.  They’re not really political problems.  Sometimes we think they are, but they’re scientific facts around those issues that should be addressed out of that and it really don’t help having Pat Robertson question scientific – it just doesn’t make any sense to sort of in the equivalent journalism concept that we’re going to take, Richard Dawkins and we’re going put him up against a guy who just has a religious belief. It would just be ludicrous.  It would be like taking a world renowned architect and then putting me – and just saying, well I don’t think that’s correct.  I think it should be done this way.  I mean, you’d think that was kind of funny, right?  For some reason we have to submit to that all the time in this business.  These people spent years training and then they put them up against a guy who just has an opinion and then there’s an equivalent weight there in some way.  Overwhelming scientific opinion about global warming and then eight guys over here that work for Exxon, and okay it doesn’t even balance.  It’s not an even balance. 

Diving in the water, I have to see it all the time.  We were just down in Bonaire and, of course Bonaire doesn’t have a water treatment plant and so, the more there’s tours in there, they just flush everything out in the ocean, right?  So, if you dive in the water and the nitrogen level is gone through the roof.  So, they say, oh, it feeds through sandstone, It’s not raw sewage, but it’s nitrogen, right?  It’s human waste, it ends up out there and they don’t like that, the coral, so they’re just dying like crazy.  The old coral there are just all gone.  You can see them; you can see the majestic size these things were.  I never saw them because they were gone and I had never been there.  But there are just these massive carcasses of coral.  You see the babies around, but then you see these massive things that were like the size of this room, just enormous things, gone because of all the things that have happened on the island. 

You see it with your eyes and you don’t understand why it’s not easier to translate to people.  And the simple solutions, you know.  They’re still waiting to get their loan from the European Union to finish building their waste processing plant.  And every year they wait.  And it’s like a $20 million loan.  It’s like ludicrous that kind of money.  So, it saddens.  It saddens you to see this kind of happening around you and the loss of things that are more than just beautiful.  As I say, they’re irreplaceable.  They’re irreplaceable human resources that we have.  It’s not like it’s things that – once those genes are gone, we can’t get them back.  We’ve got to wait a million years.  We certainly won’t be here for that.

Recorded on January 21, 2010