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Roger Tsien, 1952-2016

All other topics this morning have been moved down the queue by the sad and sudden news that Roger Tsien has died. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, this took place during a visit to Oregon, and other reports mention that he was on a bike trail at the time. Whether this was due to an accident or a sudden medical emergency isn’t clear, but what is very clear is that everyone had been expecting to benefit from his work and his insights for some time to come.

He was, of course, a Nobel laureate in chemistry in 2008 for fluorescent proteins as research tools, but this was just one facet of a wide research career (see, for example, his hypothesis about long-term memory formation). But there’s no doubt that he’s most known for the work in which he and his co-workers discovered and developed a wide array of fluorescent proteins, work that has continued the whole time, with a Nature Methods paper just published on a very useful far-red protein of a different type than all the earlier ones in the field. Tsien’s discoveries have been crucial for visualizing molecular biology techniques as applied to living cells and in vitro protein systems, and everyone doing biopharma discovery research will constantly encounter proteins, assays, and cell lines based on them.

It is no exaggeration to say that he changed the course of the field; he gave it spectacularly useful tools it had never had before. Tsien’s loss is a sudden blow, and I’m sure I can speak for many others when I say that it’s news that we all could have done without just now.

30 comments on “Roger Tsien, 1952-2016”

  1. Some Dude says:

    This is a big loss for science and all of his current and former students and postdocs.

    I always thought he was a highly decent guy based on how he treated GFP-discoverer-turned-bus-driver Douglas Prasher, giving him a staff position in his lab.

    1. JAB says:

      Knowing Prasher’s family, I concur completely about Tsien’s generosity.

    2. Chrispy says:

      His generosity to Prasher really struck a chord with me. Most of us in this business end up pretty cynical after enough time, and some of us end up driving busses. We see the kind of narcissistic egomaniacs who typically achieve Tsien’s level of fame by leaving a trail of PTSD postdocs and ripped-off collaborators. So shines a good man in a weary world. RIP

  2. LiqC says:

    He suffered a stroke in 2013 and was on sabbatical in Eugene, OR. We called him Professor Eugenius.

    He will be missed.

  3. Imaging guy says:

    Fluorescent proteins such as Phycoerythrin (PE) and Allophycocyanin (APC) had been widely used in flow cytometry as red and far red fluorophores, respectively, before Roger Tsien discovered GFP (green fluorescent protein). However, PE and APC are chemically conjugated to antibodies/proteins and therefore cannot be used inside living cells. Roger Tsien’s discovery was using recombinant method to link GFP to other proteins of interest and expressed them inside the cells. His method greatly transformed molecular biology. (PE and APC can also be used as recombinant proteins inside cells and it is also possible to chemical conjugate/cross-link GFP to antibodies and proteins. Chemical conjugation/cross-linking vs. recombination). Tsien’s latest paper in Nature Methods is about modifying APC gene to use as a recombinant protein.

    1. John E Pearson says:

      I think your history is a little out of whack. Osamu Shimomura discovered GFP in 1961 or ’62. Shimomura shared the Nobel Prize with Tsien and Chalfie for his roll in developing GFP.

  4. anon says:

    Very sad to hear this. I had the pleasure of working with him and his group in the mid 2000’s and the lab culture reflected his personality in many. Very smart and curious, people doing great science with few egos-although with a bit of social awkwardness (as I also have) that melts away when a scientific discussion starts.

    He put his dent in the universe and will be missed.

  5. Chemperor says:

    Raise a glass to a true scholar and gentleman. His like are too few and far between in our.

  6. SoCalToBoston says:

    Having worked for some time in his lab, he is easily the smartest person I will ever meet. But more than that he was a good mentor and teacher. It is amazing that fluorescent proteins was only one among several major contributions he made to science including basic research and tools for neuro-biology and chemistry as well.

  7. HTSguy says:

    Intracellular Ca2+ monitoring was another field that Roger Tsien revolutionized. His group developed Quin-2, Fura-2, and Fluo-3 among other sensors and used them to clarify what had been (largely because of poor methods) a very confused field.

    1. LiqC says:

      This is why he became interested in fluorescent proteins – to make a new kind of calcium sensor.

      These reporter systems for watchig the function of ion channels were commercialized at Aurora Biosciences that got acquired by Vertex, and resulted in a series of drug candidates, two of which were approved for cystic fibrosis.

      1. anon says:

        BTW, those drugs identified at Aurora are responsible for the continued post-HCV existence and entire >$20B value of VRTX.

  8. TX raven says:

    The best way to honor the memory of colleagues like this is to pass it forward.

  9. UCSD '97 Chemistry PhD says:

    My lasting visual of Roger remains an impenetrable stair off to the side during presentation by speakers such as me back then followed by a probing and insightful line of questioning. What a genius he was!

    1. Ano says:

      “stair” -> “stare”??

      1. UCSD '97 Chemistry PhD (and terrible speller) says:

        iPhone typo from the beaches of Maui, apologies.

        1. tangent says:

          Oh you poor dear.

    2. bw says:

      I have recounted dozens of times this rather hilarious idiosyncrasy that was constantly on display during my first year in the UCSD grad program in 2006 for our seminar class. He seemed to be paying attention to anything and everything (other than the speaker) and then would suddenly interject a cogent question that took the speaker off guard. Truly and off-scale individual. His lofty aspirations and enthusiasm will be missed.

  10. fluorotone says:

    Roger gave an amazing presentation at the UO Neuroscience retreat last year, soon after he semi-retired to the Eugene area. He described a provocative theory that long term memories may actually be stored in the perineuronal net, the web of extracellular matrix that surrounds neurons and their synaptic partners – check out the link that Derek provided to the PNAS paper. He showed some compelling preliminary data testing this hypothesis. Time will tell whether he was right or not. But, hey, it was Roger Tsien, so I became an instant believer!

    1. Qian says:

      the 61-year-old Tsien said, “You should take all elderly scientists with a grain of salt — including me.”

      1. fluorotone says:

        I should add that he gave 2 talks at the UO retreat. The first was a “Roger’s Greatest Hits” that recapped many of his key technical contributions via chemical and protein biosensors. That was an awesome talk as well. But he prefaced his PNN talk by saying something like this (paraphrased): “After 30 or so years building tools to enable other people’s research, I thought it was time I tried some hypothesis-driven studies of my own.” As others on this thread have mentioned, he had a sense of humility and humor that is so rare in someone of his caliber.

  11. Jeremy says:

    My favorite Rogerism was one of his quotes he like to cite from Pasteur- “chance favors the prepared mind”

  12. former grad student says:

    When I think of Roger Tsien, I have to think of his meet-the-laureate session in Lindau a few years back: While many other speakers used this rather informal format to give another talk, he instead wanted to talk about research problems from students in the audience. Truly mesmerizing!

  13. Calciumologist says:

    From the first time I heard him speak – some 25 years ago – I was astonished and mesmerised by the man and his intelligence. My sadness at his passing is only exceeded by my frustration that lazy journalism remembers him solely for different colour fluorescent proteins. He was SO much more than that. He and his lab developed BAPTA, chemical fluorescent indicators for different ions such as fura-2 (and the simple method of loading them into cells), caged compounds, single-cell fluorescent reporters for kinases or for gene expression… the list goes on and on. He deserved a Nobel Prize *on his own* for revolutionizing research.

    To say ‘a light has gone out’ sounds like a crass pun, but it is absolutely true. You will be missed Roger.

  14. A.Rambukana, Edinburgh says:

    Roger makes biological sciences colorful and gave scientists a chance to experiment with colors and by doing so he also gave an opportunity for the public to appreciate and enjoy science as colorful arts. We are going to miss you Roger.

  15. Oldfriend says:

    Heartbreaking. I went to elementary, junior high, and high school with Roger. I remember the first question he answered in class. It was in 5th grade, and the teacher asked “How do you define science?” After others in the class gave kind of dumb answers (heck, we were 5th graders) Roger said “I define it as the search for knowledge.” I was a fan since then.

    R.I.P Roger – you were an inspiration and will be remembered so fondly by me and all of your classmates from Livingston, New Jersey.

  16. Xiang-Jiao Yang says:

    This news was really unexpected when I heard it from a friend yesterday. He was truly a scholar who contributed so much to science. Just from one email communication, I could see his generosity. He will be missed.

  17. anon says:

    I had a honor of knowing him and hearing him talk way back in 2009 at Jackson Hole, WY. His curious way of learning was at display for all to see when he pelted every one of those speakers on various topics ranging from Physics, chemistry and the biology of imaging during the QA session! All while communicating with his students on two lap tops, SMS and then some at the same time. Amazing! RIP

  18. 123 says:

    “cause of the death was yet to be determined”…has it been? Not that it matters, Just wondering as lesser beings have a longer life than such people ( Swami Vivekananda, Ramanujan etc died pretty early) i.e., whom society needs more. R.I.P Great Rogers Tsien.

  19. Sakina says:

    Roger was my thesis advisor, and I defended earlier this year. I cannot begin to describe how much I learned from him and how much I gained from his guidance and support. He always took me seriously, listened to my ideas, and made me feel that we were working as a team. He always helped me when I needed it, even when he was swamped with all the obligations of being a PI and a Nobel Laureate. While he was the smartest, fastest thinker and toughest scientist that I have ever met, he was also an amazing person and mentor. His death was a huge loss for his students, and a huge loss for science.

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