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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 14, 2008
MBL Contacts:
Diana Kenney, 508-289-7139; dkenney@mbl.edu
Gina Hebert, 508-289-7725; ghebert@mbl.edu

Photos: Click on thumbnail for full size image.

MBL Distinguished Scientist Osamu Shimomura receives the Order of Culture medal from Hiroshi Goto of the Ministry of Education in Japan (left) and Yoichi Suzuki, Consul-General of Japan in Boston (center). Credit: Tom Kleindinst

Osamu Shimomura displays the Patent of the Order of Culture. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

Osamu Shimomura. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

The late Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, signs a copy of one of his scientific reports in the MBLWHOI Library during his 1975 visit to Woods Hole. Behind the emperor (who was a marine biologist) are, left to right, Paul Fye, former director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; James Ebert, former director, Marine Biological Laboratory; and a Secret Service agent. Photo Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives

MBL Distinguished Scientist and 2008 Nobel Laureate Osamu Shimomura Receives Japanese Order of Culture Medal

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA—Osamu Shimomura, Distinguished Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and 2008 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, was awarded the Order of Culture, the highest honor given annually by the Emperor of Japan, at a ceremony November 8 at the MBL.

The Order of Culture, which recognizes high achievement in culture, the arts, or academia, is traditionally presented at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The ceremony for Shimomura at the MBL was the first time the Order of Culture conferment has been held outside of Japan.

Shimomura was honored for his discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which is now used worldwide in the microscopic imaging of cells and their components. “GFP has contributed so much to the advancement of medicine, biotechnology, and the life sciences. It is a great honor for the government of Japan to acknowledge the achievement of Dr. Shimomura, which is the fruit of perseverance and long years of work,” said Yoichi Suzuki, Consul-General of Japan in Boston.

Suzuki presented Shimomura with the Patent of the Order of Culture, which contains the Seal of Emperor Akihito, and with the medal of the order. The medal, which is gold with white enamel, is in the form of five mandarin orange blossoms with a central disc bearing three crescent-shaped jades.

“A mandarin orange tree has been planted in the southern garden of the Imperial Garden of Kyoto since the Heian Era (from 794-1185),” said Suzuki. “The mandarin orange symbolizes eternity, and in the Order of Culture it symbolizes the timelessness of culture, art, and academic achievement.”

Shimomura also received the Person of Cultural Merit award, which comes with an annual pension from the Japanese government. These honors were presented by Fumio Isoda, Director-General of the Research Promotion Bureau in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology in Tokyo.

Isoda brought a message from Japan’s minister of education, Ryu Shionoya, which noted that “Dr. Shimomura’s achievement is not just for Japanese science, but for the progress of science all over the world. We are very proud of him.”

“Four Japanese scientists received the Nobel Prize this year, including Dr. Shimomura,” said Isoda. “Most of them did basic science. The Japanese government has spent too much on ‘big-science’ projects like supercomputers and rockets. We have to rethink about the importance of pure-science activities like Dr. Shimomura’s.”

Shimomura was a senior scientist at the MBL from 1982 to 2001. He discovered GFP in the jellyfish Aequorea in 1961, while he was investigating the animal’s bioluminescent properties at Princeton University. With the help of his wife and research assistant, Akemi, Shimomura collected about 850,000 specimens of Aequorea between 1961 and his retirement in 2001. He was the first person to purify both GFP and the bioluminescing protein, aequorin, from Aequorea, which he collected at Friday Harbor Laboratories, University of Washington.

In accepting the Order of Culture, Shimomura remarked that when he discovered GFP, “it was just a protein; there was no use at all for its green fluorescence. But after many years it has developed into a very, very useful protein. I didn’t work by myself. But GFP has grown up by itself, with the help of other scientists. I feel very lucky.”

Shimomura shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Martin Chalfie of Columbia University, New York, and Roger Y. Tsien of University of California, San Diego. In the mid-1990s, Chalfie developed the methodology for using GFP as a luminous tag inside cells, while Tsien engineered GFP to make it glow brighter, and expanded the range of colors that it can emit.

Pamela Clapp Hinkle, director of external relations at the MBL, congratulated Shimomura on receiving the Order of Culture. She also noted the long tradition of cooperation between Japanese and Woods Hole scientists, beginning with the MBL’s founding director in 1888, Charles Otis Whitman, who was a professor at University of Tokyo from 1879 to 1881.

Among the participants in the Order of Culture ceremony were Shinya Inoué, Distinguished Scientist at the MBL, and Susumu Honjo, scientist emeritus at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Both Inoué and Honjo were present when the former emperor of Japan, Hirohito, visited Woods Hole in 1975.

On that occasion, Emperor Hirohito, who was a marine biologist, signed a copy of one of his scientific reports and donated it to the MBLWHOI Library. Catherine N. Norton, director of the MBLWHOI Library, installed the desk and chair that Emperor Hirohito had used in the library’s Grass Reading Room for ceremonial use during conferment of the Order of Culture to Shimomura.


The MBL is a leading international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to discovery and to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. For more information, visit www.MBL.edu.