Life Sciences Research for Lifelong Health

Fatima in Imaging Facility

Celebrating the toolmakers: an appreciation of Roger Tsien

We don’t tend to pay much thought to the people who have created the tools we use in our lives. Think, for a moment, about the screen on which you are reading this. How many hundreds, or maybe thousands of people have been responsible for developing the myriad components that make up this device? How did each part come to exist? The truth is that such a device represents a confluence of ideas. An assemblage of thoughts that have built upon the thoughts and inspiration of those who have gone before.

When I was doing my PhD in the 1990s at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, I didn’t pay much thought to the tools I was using, including a fluorescent dye that got brighter or dimmer depending on how much calcium it bound and a protein that fluoresced green when illuminated with blue light. During my subsequent post doc years at Bristol University, I continued to use these tools and the ever expanding rainbow of fluorescent proteins that were enabling me to study various aspects of cell biology. It was now commonplace to tag a protein of interest with a fluorescent protein to see where the protein of interest was located in a cell and what it did under certain conditions – for example oscillating on and off the cell’s plasma membrane after stimulation.

Around this time I became aware of the name Roger Tsien (pronounced ‘chen’) and I realised that much of what I had been doing had only been made possible because of Tsien’s work. Tsien spent much of his research career trying to make the invisible visible. He realised that you can only truly understand a dynamic system when you can observe it working and had gone about creating the necessary tools to make those observations. He was the person who had created the calcium sensors I had been using; he had been responsible for engineering the enhanced green fluorescent protein (GFP) I’d been looking at in my cells; he had created the new ‘fruit basket’ of fluorescent proteins that were enabling me to see multiple components in a cell at the same time.

Much of the cell biology work at Babraham continues to use the fluorescent proteins and other tools developed by Tsien. Whether it’s looking at the dynamics of signalling pathways, the behaviour of lymphocytes1, the subtleties of epigenetics or the structure of and function of the nucleus, fluorescence and live cell imaging play a big part in the discovery process.

Of course, science is a collaborative endeavour where knowledge is built on knowledge and each piece of research contributes but one more piece to the bigger puzzle. Tsien was keen to point this out in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (won with Osamu Shimomura and Martin Chalfie for their work on GFP) “So we also thank the many collaborators and colleagues who really made this revolution happen. We are just three fortunate representatives of this community”. However, there is little doubt that over the last 25 years, countless advances in our understanding of cell biology have been made using live cell imaging methods utilising the tools of Roger Tsien’s work. Sadly, Tsien unexpectedly died on the 24th August 2016 aged 64. His work will undoubtedly continue to provide the tools to inspire generations of biologists to come; hopefully they will not remain ignorant of his contribution.

If you’re interested in what a career as a scientific facility head might entail, check out Simon’s video on our 'Careers in Science' page.

1 If you don’t know what these are, take a look at our Weapons of Microscopic Destruction website
For more information on GFP and Roger Tsien’s contribution to its development, see this guide from Connecticut College
For further information on the use of fluorescent proteins in research see this Zeiss guide  
An example of a single cell calcium imaging experiment using one of Roger Tsien’s dyes can be found here
Obituaries of Roger Tsien have been published in Nature, Cell and Science


14 December, 2016

By Simon Walker