Scientists regularly use fluorescent proteins as reporter molecules to track proteins and cellular activity (Figure 1). But who discovered and developed these proteins into such valuable tools? Several people were involved, but one person played a crucial role in developing the multicolor proteins that started with the green fluorescent protein (GFP). This article reviews the life, work, and impact of the Nobel Prize winner Roger Yonchien Tsien, who took a single tool and expanded it into the fluorescent protein toolset available to researchers today.
Who was Roger Yonchien Tsien?
Chinese American chemical biologist Roger Yonchien Tsien was born on February 1, 1952 (Figure 2). His father went to MIT and was a mechanical engineer, and his mother was a nurse. Scientific experimentation began early for Tsien. “Some time in elementary school my parents bought a Gilbert chemistry set, but I didn’t find it very interesting because the experiments seemed so tame. Then I discovered a book in the school library that had much better experiments and illustrations,” Tsien described in his Nobel Prize autobiography. In that autobiography, he also detailed some of the experiments involving colorful chemical compounds that sparked his interest in chemistry. It seems fitting that he developed the colorful protein toolset that changed the way scientists visualize living organisms. Doing experiments from a young age—some very dangerous for an 8–15-year-old—helped him learn the rigors and difficulties of research.
Tsien went on to study neurobiology at Harvard, receiving his bachelor’s in 1972, and continued in this field later in his career. In 1977, Tsien received his PhD in Physiology from Cambridge. In his research, he aimed to study neurons in parallel, instead of individually, and thought this could be solved using dyes—he always enjoyed using color to answer biological questions.
During his postdoc at Cambridge from 1977 to 1981, he met his wife Wendy Globe at a Christmas party. Continuing the research path, Tsien took a position at UC Berkeley as a professor from 1982 to 1989 and then at UC San Diego from 1989 until his passing on August 24, 2016.