Lubert Stryer, luminary scientist of light and life, author of classic textbook, dies at 86

Stryer made fundamental discoveries in fluorescence spectroscopy and vision, established structural biology at Stanford, and uplifted young scientists.

- By Nina Bai

Lubert Stryer

Lubert Stryer, MD, professor emeritus of structural biology and of neurobiology at Stanford Medicine, known for his illuminating discoveries in fluorescence spectroscopy, human vision and high-speed genetic analysis, and for writing a popular textbook that taught biochemistry to millions of students worldwide, died April 8 at his home in Stanford. The cause was cancer, and he was 86.

“Lubert was one of the most inspirational, dedicated and genuinely wonderful people I have had the privilege of knowing,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at Stanford University. “He was truly a polymath in his understanding of various fields of science and his ability to bring different techniques and approaches to the questions he sought to answer. I can think of no one who better exemplifies the values of academic excellence and scientific impact.”

Stryer is widely remembered for his rigorous science and pedagogical skill, but those who knew him also recall a warm and generous friend, a kind but demanding mentor, a stimulating colleague, and a teacher who was a lifelong learner.

“Lubert had an extraordinary intellect coupled with an insatiable curiosity,” said Lucy Shapiro, PhD, a professor emerita of developmental biology. “Most of us lose the childhood wonder and awe of the biological and physical world, but Lubert never did. He had an uncanny ability to communicate his vast store of knowledge to students of all ages with clarity, precision and joy.”

Discoveries in light

Light was the leitmotif throughout Stryer’s four-decade career. In the 1960s, as a young assistant professor at Stanford Medicine, he experimentally proved Förster’s theorem, which posited that the efficiency of energy transfer between two light-sensitive molecules depended on the distance between them. Stryer and colleagues showed that this phenomenon could be employed as a spectroscopic ruler to measure the tiny distances — typically a few nanometers — between sites on a protein tagged with light-sensitive molecules. Fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) has since developed into an essential tool used in thousands of studies to elucidate the structure of proteins and nucleic acids and their interactions with each other.

In the 1970s, Stryer turned his attention to the mechanism of vision, specifically the mystery of how our eyes can process small amounts of light into a visual signal. Rhodopsin, a light-sensing protein in photoreceptor cells of the retina, was known to change shape in response to a single photon. Stryer’s team discovered that each photo-excited rhodopsin molecule then activates about 500 molecules of another protein, which they named transducin, greatly amplifying the signal that leads to vision. Remarkably similar amplification mechanisms have been identified in other biological processes, such as the body’s response to hormones.

“This was an amazing revelation,” said Jeremy Nathans, MD, PhD, a former graduate student at Stanford Medicine who was inspired by Stryer’s work on vision. “It speaks to an extremely ancient system, which has now been repurposed for many different physiological functions.” Nathans is now a professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, studying the genetics of vision.

These two fundamental discoveries, FRET and signal amplification in vision, established Stryer’s scientific legacy.

In 1989, Stryer took a one-year hiatus from Stanford Medicine to help found Affymax, a biotech company that used light to generate microarrays containing hundreds of thousands of synthetic compounds for drug discovery. He later led the scientific advisory board at Affymetrix, a spinoff company that found spectacular success in manufacturing thumbnail-sized DNA chips for high-speed genetic analysis.

He earned a reputation as a stellar educator, both in print and in person. “Lubert was a fantastic lecturer, the kind where you come out of the lecture and say to yourself, ‘That’s the best lecture I’ve ever heard,’” Nathans said.

Stryer was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He received the American Chemical Society Award in Biological Chemistry, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the European Inventor of the Year Award and an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Lubert Stryer at St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia, in 2009.
Andrea Stryer

In 2006, Stryer was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest recognition for scientists and engineers. At the White House ceremony, as President George W. Bush placed the medal around his neck, Stryer told the president that he was especially grateful as an immigrant to this country.

Making one’s place

Stryer was born on March 2, 1938, in Tianjin, China. His father, a German businessman, had gone to the Far East to trade in hog hair bristles used in brushes. His mother had arrived from Russia to escape the pogroms. Stryer grew up in Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation during World War II. Many foreigners were taken to detention camps, but his family, by chance, “slipped through the cracks,” Stryer recalled in an oral history.

His earliest education took place in a makeshift, one-room school run by two Danish women in their apartment. There, the older children taught what they learned to younger children, who in turn tutored even younger children. “There was very much a spirit of learning by teaching,” he said. “And I think that’s where I developed my love for teaching and my capacity to use teaching as a way of continuing my learning and exploring new areas.”

After the war ended in 1945, 7-year-old Stryer was enrolled as a second grader in the newly reopened Shanghai American School. But he skipped two grades in one day — first, by mistakenly walking into a third-grade classroom, then by doing so well on an aptitude test that the third-grade teacher sent him to the fourth grade.

In 1948, the family left China, boarding a PanAm flight to the United States. Stryer remembered stopping on Midway Island, where they were greeted by colonies of black-footed albatross, before formally entering the United States in Honolulu. “I vividly remember my dad pulling out one hundred and fifty dollars. Fifty dollars per person was the immigration fee — a lot of money, well spent — and we were on U.S. soil.”

They eventually settled in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York. In high school, Stryer had his first taste of science research — in a project involving bioluminescent bacteria — and was hooked. “The idea that you can explore new terrain was very exciting,” he said.

At age 16, Stryer entered the University of Chicago with a full scholarship. (Those were lean times for his family, his father’s bristle business with China having dried up as a consequence of communism and the invention of nylon.) He majored in physiology; worked summers at Argonne National Lab researching light-sensitive dyes; met his future wife, Andrea, a fellow undergraduate studying history and education; and graduated in three years.

He was a young man in a hurry. “Having been through World War II, having seen my parents dislocated, there’s a tremendous feeling that one has to get on with life and make one’s place and be successful,” he said.

By his fourth year at Harvard Medical School, he had decided on a career in research. A mentor advised him to beef up on physics and math. He spent a year as a research fellow in physics at Harvard and another year learning protein spectroscopy at the famed Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, a center of the emerging field of structural biology.

A singular voice

In 1963, at age 25, Stryer joined Stanford University as an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry. In just a few years, he made his mark with his fluorescence spectroscopy work.

He was recruited to Yale University as a full professor in 1969 and initiated his work on vision. He also taught biochemistry to undergraduates. The lecture notes from his course became the outline for his landmark textbook.

“He decided he was unhappy with the biochemical textbooks that were available. He didn’t think they conveyed the beauty and interest of the field, how molecules were structured, and how they functioned,” said I. Robert Lehman, PhD, an emeritus professor of biochemistry. “So, he decided to write a textbook. And he did, in fact, write a wonderful textbook.”

Stryer was a disciplined writer, producing chapters on a regular schedule, recalled Nathans, who read early drafts as a graduate student. “These were typically chapters in areas of science that Lubert had never worked in, yet he could write a chapter and do the figures all in two weeks,” Nathans said.

Stryer wrote all of Biochemistry himself, feeling that the continuity and personality of a single voice would be more appealing to students. He insisted on five-color illustrations, a groundbreaking indulgence for textbooks at the time, to better display the three-dimensional structure of proteins.

Published in 1975, Biochemistry was an instant hit. Now in its 10th edition (Stryer singled-handedly revised the first four) and translated into multiple languages, the textbook made the name Stryer synonymous with biochemistry for generations of students.

Minor used the textbook as an undergraduate and medical student at Brown University. Tobias Meyer, PhD, a former postdoc in Stryer’s lab and now a professor of cell and developmental biology at Weill Cornell Medicine, read Biochemistry as a graduate student in Switzerland. Liqun Luo, PhD, the Ann and Bill Swindells Professor at Stanford University, studied the textbook as an undergraduate in China.

I learned most of my biochemistry through reading Lubert’s textbook. His book enabled me to come to the United States as a graduate student.

“I learned most of my biochemistry through reading Lubert’s textbook,” Luo said. “His book enabled me to come to the United States as a graduate student.”

Nurturing the next generation

Decades later, when Luo embarked on writing a textbook on neurobiology, Stryer was an enthusiastic supporter.

“He read every chapter, sometimes more than once, and gave critiques along with lots of encouragement,” said Luo, who dedicated the second edition of his textbook, Principles of Neurobiology, to Stryer. “His encouragement was very important, because otherwise I may have given up.”

In 1976, Stryer returned to Stanford Medicine to establish the new Department of Structural Biology, which he chaired for three years. His first recruit was James Spudich, PhD, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who would become a collaborator and close friend, later succeeding Stryer as chair of the department.   

“He expected a lot from his own science and the science of people around him,” said Spudich, an emeritus professor of biochemistry.

Stryer’s curiosity made him a great listener who was always interested to learn of other’s work — partly so he could keep his textbook up to date. “He was very keen to have the latest information,” said Spudich, who recalled racing to make sure a paper was published in Nature, because Stryer already had incorporated the findings into the forthcoming edition of his textbook.

Spudich’s wife, Anna Spudich, who had left her graduate studies to raise their children, said Stryer was instrumental in her scientific career. “Lubert encouraged me to go back,” she said. “Even after I had been out of school for almost eight years, he was the first person who wrote me a recommendation for graduate school.” She completed her PhD at Stanford, with distinction, and was a postdoc in Stryer’s lab for two years.

“Anna and I remember how very supportive he was of us, and we deeply appreciated that,” Spudich said.

“I think it’s absolutely crucial to seize the phase of people’s lives when they’re immensely creative and to do everything possible to nurture that,” Stryer said in his 2008 oral history.

In the 1990s, Nathans and Stryer served on the scientific advisory board of the Steinbach Fund for Macular Degeneration, which met yearly to decide which grant proposals to fund. One year, they realized there was one too many deserving proposals for their budget. “The one that seemed like it was going to be dropped was from a young faculty member just starting out, for whom this grant would have been a really big help,” Nathans said. “We sat there for a few seconds, wondering what to do, and Lubert just said, ‘I’ll pay for it.’”

Traveling the world

Stryer continued as chair of the scientific advisory board of Affymetrix until 2010.

He retired from Stanford in 2004, a day before his 66th birthday, in part, he said, to make room for up-and-coming faculty members.

He spent time on other passions — photography (“drawing with light” in Greek) and adventure traveling with Andrea. Together, they saw India, Morocco, Rwanda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Chile, the Galapagos Islands and more. They traveled, literally, to the ends of the earth — to the Arctic Circle and (twice) to Antarctica. He became an admirable photographer of nature and wildlife. And he applied his scientific curiosity wherever he went, noticing, for example, how penguin chicks instinctively tapped on their parents’ bill for food, how blue-footed boobies scrutinized each other’s feet to assess the fitness of prospective mates, and how the evolution of a broader spectrum of color vision in primates (known as trichromacy) allowed gorillas to pick out red berries among green foliage.

As emeritus professor, he continued to mentor younger scientists and was a sought-after advisor, serving on the boards of the McKnight Endowment for Neuroscience, the National Research Council, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub. He remained an ardent proponent of welcoming young people into science.

Luo recalled a suggestion Stryer made on the opening chapter of his neurobiology textbook, which had been titled, reasonably, “Introduction.” That was too generic, Stryer said. “How about ‘An Invitation’?”

Stryer is survived by his wife, Andrea; his son Michael; and four grandchildren. His younger son, Daniel, died of a glioblastoma in 2005.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2024 ISSUE 1

Psychiatry’s new frontiers