(CNN) -- Research into the mysterious green glow of a jellyfish earned three scientists this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the Nobel Foundation announced Wednesday.
One of Martin Chalfie's first experiments involved using GFP to color individual cells in a transparent roundworm.
Osamu Shimomura of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Martin Chalfie of Columbia University; and Roger Tsien of the University of California at San Diego won for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein GFP.
Each will take a third of the prize.
GFP was first observed in 1962, in the crystal jellyfish which drifts with the currents off the west coast of North America.
Since then, the protein has become one of the most important tools in contemporary bioscience, the foundation said. Using GFP, researchers have developed ways to watch processes that were previously invisible, like the development of nerve cells or how cancer cells spread.
Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese citizen, was the first to isolate GFP from the crystal jellyfish, discovering that the protein glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.
American scientist Martin Chalfie demonstrated GFP's value as a luminous genetic tag in nature. One of Chalfie's first experiments, the foundation said, involved using GFP to color individual cells in a transparent roundworm.
Roger Tsien, also an American, extended the color palette beyond green. Researchers can now give various proteins and cells different colors, enabling them to follow different biological processes at the same time, the foundation said.
By using DNA technology, researchers can now connect GFP to other proteins that were previously invisible, or to various cells, the Nobel Foundation said. The glowing marker allows them to watch the movements, positions and interactions of whatever carries the glowing tag.
The Nobel Foundation said GFP can help with researching nerve cell damage during Alzheimer's disease or insulin-producing beta cells created in the pancreas of a growing embryo. In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells with "a kaleidoscope of colors" in the brain of a mouse, the foundation said.
Shimomura was born in Kyoto, Japan, and received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1960 from Nagoya University. He is now professor emeritus at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Boston University Medical School.
Chalfie grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and received his Ph.D. in neurobiology from Harvard University in 1977. He is now a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University in New York.
Tsien was born in New York and received a Ph.D. in physiology from Cambridge University in 1977. He is a professor at UC-San Diego.