Yao was born in Changshu, Jiangsu Province on 18 October 1915. Yao graduated from the Department of Biology of Zhejiang University in 1937. After graduation, he became a teaching assistant at the department. Yao received a scholarship from British Council and went to study in UK in 1946. Yao obtained PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1949.
Yao jointed the former Shanghai Institute of Experimental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in August 1950. He was the Vice-Director of the former CAS Shanghai Institute of Cell Biology.
Yao was a senior academician of Chinese Academy of Sciences (1980 election). August 1988, Yao was elected as the 1st President of Asian-Pacific Organization for Cell Biology.
Yao also served as the Chief Director of Chinese Society for Cell Biology. Yao was a senior researcher and professor at Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences (IBCB), Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is one of the most prestigious institutes for biological research in China.
When Yao was in Britain, his research mainly focused on the developmental embryology of drosophila. Yao made significant contributions to the researches of cell differentiation and development, and experimental cancer biology in China, thus is regarded as a pioneer in these domains in China.
Yao died in Shanghai on 4 November 2005.
Sometimes, Yao Zhen was called YAO Xin by mistake, because the Chinese character Zhen (?) is too similar to Xin (?).