2023 Inductee Roger Tsien: An Illuminating Biochemist
Each year at the National Inventors Hall of Fame®, it is our privilege to welcome a new class of world-changing Inductees. Our 2023 class is made up of influential innovators representing diverse fields, backgrounds and accomplishments. Among them is biochemist Roger Tsien, who invented green fluorescent protein (GFP) variants. Having discovered how to make GFP, a substance found in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, glow more brightly and consistently, he led the way in using light and color to see how living cells work. Read on to learn more about Tsien and his impact.
Experimenting With Chemistry
Tsien was born in New York City in 1952. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a nurse, encouraged his early interest in chemistry as he engaged in experiments that became increasingly complex and challenging as he grew.
At the age of just 16, Tsien’s desire to pursue a scientific path led him to enroll at Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics in 1972. He received his doctorate in physiology from the University of Cambridge in 1977 and served as a research fellow there until 1981. A year later, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, to further his doctoral research.
In 1989, Tsien joined the faculty of the University of California-San Diego (UC San Diego), where he stayed for the rest of his career. At the time, techniques for monitoring cellular proteins, which involved injecting dyes into a cell or grinding cells up and isolating the constituents, were disruptive to molecular dynamics, delivered unclear results and did not allow scientists to track proteins in a living cell.
Understanding that GFP tags can be used in living cells without disturbing the function of the protein, Tsien wanted to be able to label subunits of proteins with tags in different colors. So in the early 1990s, he began mutating GFP with the intention of improving its stability and developing a second color.
Creating a Rainbow of Fluorescent Proteins
Exploring the limits of the GFP chromophore’s tolerance of chemical modifications that can change its spectral properties, Tsien applied slight variations in the structure of the chromophore and its interactions with the protein environment. Through this process, he produced an enhanced GFP and a GFP version that glowed blue.
Beyond green and blue, Tsien went on to create a full color palette of brighter, artificially derived GFP variants with distinct improvements over the naturally occurring, wild-type GFP for use as fluorescent markers in living cells, enabling scientists to track multiple cellular processes simultaneously.
“Our work is often described as building and training molecular spies,” said Tsien. “Molecules that will enter a cell or organism and report back to us what the conditions are, what’s going on with the biochemistry, while the cell is still alive.”
Clontech Laboratories, which is now owned by Takara Bio USA Inc., was the first company to commercialize Tsien’s GFP variants. Today, GFP is a fundamental tool used worldwide in biology, chemistry, genetics and medical labs, making it possible to track nearly every biochemical event in living systems.
Tsien earned 136 U.S. patents, co-founded several companies based on his research, and was a professor of pharmacology, chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego School of Medicine for 27 years. In 2008, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering work in the development and application of GFP variants.
Meet More Inspiring 2023 Inductees
To learn more about the visionary creators and innovators who make up our latest class of National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.