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ACS News

Roger Tsien

Biochemist advanced the use of green fluorescent protein as a ubiquitous biological marker

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
September 1, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 35

Credit: UC San Diego Health
This is a photo of 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Roger Tsien
Credit: UC San Diego Health

Roger Y. Tsien, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who helped make green fluorescent protein (GFP) one of the most valuable tools for examining biological systems, has died. He was 64.

Tsien, who was professor of pharmacology, chemistry, and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego, died on Aug. 24 while bicycling on a trail in Eugene, Ore. Tsien’s family has declined to disclose the cause of death, according to a UCSD spokesman.

The news has shocked and saddened not only colleagues and friends, but the science community at large. Twitter exploded with condolences from those who had worked with him, written about him, or simply admired his scientific prowess.

Nicolas Robine (@notSoJunkDNA), a computational biologist at the New York Genome Center, tweeted: “Labs of the world: light up your GFP cells in honor of Roger Tsien.”

Stanford University chemist Carolyn Bertozzi (@CarolynBertozzi) tweeted: “Devastated by the loss of Roger Tsien, who created bioorthogonality way before the term was coined.”

Amy Palmer, chemistry and biochemistry professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was a postdoctoral researcher in Tsien’s lab during the early 2000s. “For me, he was an inspiration for how to do science: to be constantly curious, to never stop exploring, and most important, to appreciate the beauty of science and have fun,” she says.

Tsien is most well-known for his work on GFP, which scientists now routinely use to tag and observe proteins in cells. He shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Osamu Shimomura, emeritus professor at the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Mass., and Martin Chalfie, professor of biological sciences at Columbia University.

Shimomura identified GFP, which glows green under blue to ultraviolet light, in jellyfish; Chalfie devised methods to link GFP to other proteins, making it a biological marker; and Tsien synthesized a whole class of related proteins that fluoresced even more brightly—and in an array of different colors.

Tsien “was a remarkable and spectacularly innovative scientist who was always seeing the next wonderful goal,” Chalfie says. “Then he would do something amazing and different to accomplish that goal.”

Tsien was born in 1952 in New York City. He excelled at science from an early age, winning first prize in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search for high school seniors in 1968.

He graduated summa cum laude in chemistry and physics from Harvard University in 1972, then earned his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 1977. He spent several years at UC Berkeley before moving to UCSD in 1989.

In the years after winning the Nobel Prize, Tsien remained an active researcher. Among other projects, he and colleagues developed a genetic tag that labels proteins of interest in electron microscopy (C&EN, April 6, 2011, page 34) and so-called activatable cell-penetrating peptides to light up tissue during tumor surgery.

“Roger was a brilliant and creative scientist,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor Stephen J. Lippard, who once worked with Tsien. “His insights inspired many to pursue the chemistry of biological processes. Importantly, he provided the tools to allow them to do so. He will be sorely missed.”


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