Saturday, October 11, 2008

Open Science Pioneer Award: Douglas Prasher and the Sharing of the GFP Gene

There is a touching and fascinating story in the Cape Cod Times about Douglas Prasher who used to work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In the 1960s he did some of the pioneering work on GFP (the discovery of which was why Osamu Shimomura, Roger Tsein and Martin Chalfie were given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year). Prasher had cloned the gene for GFP but his research funds ran out and he stopped working on GFP (he is currently living in Huntsville Alabama and working as a shuttle driver for a car dealership).

His pioneering work was critical to the later work on GFP and one of the nobel winner Martin Chalfie says
"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."
What Prasher did that was so critical was that he gave the cloned gene away to Tsein and Chalfie and others. He was under no obligation per se to give away the gene. But he bears no sour grapes. And he says something fundamentally true about this:
"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."
Sharing of resources is common in science but not universal. And many do it, well, just because it is common practice. But I think we forget sometimes that we have an obligation to share beyond what is common practice. We have an obligation because the advancement of science is why the government (and the public) gives us money to do our work. So, for not harboring sour grapes about missing out on a Nobel Prize, and for emphasizing the "public good" part of sharing scientific resources, I am giving Douglas Prasher an "Open Science Pioneer Award"

See also


  1. I have to agree with one of Prasher's colleagues...

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

    What a sad story.

  2. Well, there are many examples of people dropping out of science for a variety of reasons. But to drop out because of lack of funding is indeed sad if that is what happened.

  3. Maybe this exposure could lead to someone offering Prasher a chance to re-tool and get back into the game? In terms of producing things of value, it sure looks the man has mad skillz.

  4. Maybe we can at least get Hudson Alpha folks to invite him for a talk. What about that Chris Gunter?

  5. Dr Eisen, thanks so much for linking to my brief on the NPR story. Prasher is truly a gentleman scientist and, to me, operated in the true spirit of why so many of us chose this career path. I'm pleased to see job opportunities for Prasher being sent to me and on the NPR comment thread.

    Not being privy to any IP deals behind the original sales of GFP clones by Clontech et al. and new proteins by other companies, I wonder if the Woods Hole tech transfer office is getting any grief from their Board of Trustees about Prasher's free distribution of the cDNA back then. IMHE, I have frankly been underwhelmed by the cost/benefit of tech transfer offices - I see a lot of useful but not likely commercializible science being held up by cumbersome paperwork and time delays due to petty wordsmithing.

    "I put my heart and soul into it, but if I kept that stuff, it wasn't gonna go anyplace."

    That is the true spirit of science and exemplifies the Open Access philosophy. I truly hope that if Dr Prasher wishes to return to science that he has a choice of excellent offers from institutions that respect such integrity.

  6. Dear All,

    I am very touched by this. I've seen several comments on the web where people thought they may have found a job for him. Prasher is making $10 an hour and he has a wife and three kids. NPR got in touch with him by phone, but I don't know if he has internet access to read the job leads (He's just focused on daily survival right now, from what I've read). My question is is anyone out there actually making an effort to tell him that there is hope - and perhaps a job in science for him? By that, I mean talk to the man and give him a phone number to call or an address to send his resume to. Something concrete.
    This is a story that is going around the world, and it would be a horrible shame that this country has nothing for him. The man is obviously not a lazy bum or a slacker.

  7. Anonymous - I am hoping someone does pick up on this. It would seem to me that Hudson Alpha, in Huntsville, where he lives, is a good place to start.

  8. The NIH should be shamed for discontinuing of his funding. The review process is really ugly and dirty there.

  9. From some of the quotes of Prasher's that have appeared in books, it wasn't 100% that he couldn't get funded that caused him to move out of Institute / Univ research. Prasher did the cloning of GFP in Woods Hole working largely alone (and probably unpaid for the last bit). He seems to have just got tired of ploughing a lone furrow, and felt that he wanted to be part of more of a team effort somewhere. In the book Aglow in the Dark about the bioluminescent and fluorescent proteins story, Prasher is quoted as saying:

    "I was convinced that writing grants and working in an isolated environment was not my cup of tea"

    - and explaining why he took a job working for the USDA on Cape Cod:

    "I wouldn't have to relocate. I wouldn't have to write grants any more."

    He was also 44 or 45 by the time he had published the GFP cloning, and possibly married with kids, so it is hardly a surprise that being a postdoc or fellow on short money (even if he could get a grant) was short of appeal.

    What is saddest, I guess we all agree, is that a guy who did such significant work, and who was clearly highly talented as a lab scientist - to have cloned the Aequorin AND the GFP genes with the early 80s-early 90s technology, you really would have to have been a serious molecular biology Ninja - ended up not working in any kind of science-based job at all.

    I really like Jonathan's idea of giving Prasher an "Open Science" award. As Jonathan and others have said, Prasher did exactly what we are all meant to do - put the greater good of the "Scientific Wiki of discovery" to the fore and hand the material out openly. As all working scientists know, though, "supposed to happen" is one thing - it is kind of patchy (to put it politely) as to whether it really does. So kudos to Prasher for being a real "scientists' scientist", and let's hope he gets a science-based job where his talents can be put to their proper use.

  10. I recently told this story to my fiancee, and she had what I think is a great idea: write Dr. Prasher yourself and tell him how significant you think his work was:

    His address is easy to find in public databases:

    Dr. Douglas C. Prasher
    14014 Mount Hope Pl SE
    Huntsville, AL 35803-2857

    I've already written my letter and plan to have it in the mail by Monday. I hope that you all will do the same. While he seems to have a very good attitude about this ordeal publicly, I'm sure that some encouragement from fellow scientists would be welcomed.

  11. Jason B - great idea. Not sure I remember how to use "real" mail but will try to figure it out.

  12. Is Douglas Prasher married to Virginia Eckenrode Ph.D.? There are numerous citations of them together, and they seem to have lived in the same neighborhood in Maryland at one time... Somebody identified Eckenrode as his wife in Wikipedia. Just wondering...
    Thank -

  13. I agree that Douglas should receive a special award of some type for his willingness to share his work. This is absolutely essential to the success of science and should be acknowledged.

    I also worked with Douglas when we was at the USDA, and he was always generous with his time and knowledge there as well.

  14. Yes, he is married to Virginia Eckenrode, Ph.D.


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