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60 years of Fluorescent Proteins

Posted by , on 4 October 2022

In talks about fluorescent proteins I usually include a timeline of events related to Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). The timeline highlights some of the key moments in the history of fluorescent protein discovery and engineering. I am generally fond of timelines, since they provide a way to pay tribute to the pioneers, and other researchers that have moved the field forward. A timeline also nicely illustrates the amazing progress that science has made over several decades.

This year marks 60 years since the discovery of a “green protein” by Osamu Shimomura et al. (1962) and it seemed like a good opportunity to update the timeline that I use in my talks. Since timelines require regular updating I decided to make a script for plotting of the timeline. This simplifies updating and it is easy to make extensions or modifications. So here it is, an updated timeline of 60 years of GFP discovery and engineering:

Scripting a timeline

I used R with the {ggplot2} and {ggreppel} packages to make the timeline. The script and the data are available on Github. The script loads data from a text file in which the information is organized in columns with the names “Year” and “Event”. The text document also contains a column “DOI”. This column refers to the relevant literature but I do not use that currently (for an interactive version it would be great if clicking on the event would lead to the original citation, but this is not possible right now).

The timeline that I made is a personal selection of highlights and is by no means a complete picture. Yet, by changing the content of the text file with years and events, the timeline can be updated or modified. I hope that the script provides a good starting point to make a timeline for any topic of interest.

Final words

The optimization of Aequorea victoria derived GFP was finished roughly 2 decades ago, resulting in mEGFP. While mEGFP is a fantastic probe for protein tagging and live cell imaging, a lot of new fluorescent proteins have been discovered and engineered. It is clear from the timeline that fluorescent protein engineering is still a very active field. There is no doubt that we will see new fluorescent proteins in the future.

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