Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg Dies at 82
Renowned NIH Scientist Played Leading Role in Deciphering Genetic Code,
Donated Papers to the National Library of Medicine
Marshall Warren Nirenberg, an internationally recognized scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 for deciphering the genetic code, died of cancer at his home in New York City on January 15. He was 82 years old.
"The world of medicine has a lost a giant," said Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). "Marshall Nirenberg's ground-breaking research on deciphering the genetic code was a landmark achievement of the 20th century."
Marshall Warren Nirenberg was born April 10, 1927, in New York City, but the family moved to Florida because Nirenberg developed rheumatic fever. He became an adept observer of plant life, insects, and birds, and captured these observations through carefully written and maintained notes. Nirenberg earned his BS degree in zoology and chemistry in 1948 from the University of Florida in Gainesville and his MS degree from the same University in 1952.
Later that year, Nirenberg moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. In 1957, he earned a PhD in biological chemistry by writing a dissertation on the uptake of hexose, a type of sugar, by tumor cells. This work served as the basis of his first published article and shaped the direction of his initial studies after graduate school. In 1959, Nirenberg was chosen as a postdoctoral fellow of the Public Health Service's Section on Metabolic Enzymes at the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases (NIAMDD), a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The following year, Nirenberg joined the staff as a research biochemist.
In 1959, Nirenberg began his investigations into the relationship between deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the production of proteins. With J. Heinrich Matthaei, a researcher from Bonn, Germany, he initiated a series of experiments using synthetic RNA. The two scientists were able to show how RNA transmits the "messages" that are encoded in DNA and direct how amino acids combine to make proteins. These experiments became the foundation of Nirenberg's groundbreaking work on the genetic code, which he first made public at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in August 1961. By early 1962, the significance of these early experiments was recognized throughout the world, after the popular media highlighted the importance of their work as a major scientific breakthrough.
During this same period, Nirenberg was offered professorships at a number of major universities across the United States, but decided to stay at NIH. In 1962, he was appointed chief of the Section on Biochemical Genetics at the NIH's National Heart Institute (NHI).
By 1966, Nirenberg had deciphered all the RNA "codons" - the term used to describe the "code words" of messenger RNA - for all 20 major amino acids. Two years later, in 1968, Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis." He shared the award with Robert W. Holley of Cornell University and Har Gobind Khorana of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
After Nirenberg's research on the genetic code, he turned to the field of neurobiology. The new scientific arena gave Nirenberg the freedom to ask new questions, solve new problems, and explore new biological puzzles. Nirenberg would devote the next thirty years of his scientific career to the investigation of various aspects of neurobiology.
Marshall Nirenberg's scientific papers, correspondence, published articles, and photographs are featured on the Profiles in Science Web site, //profiles.nlm.nih.gov/. Profiles celebrates 20th century leaders in biomedical research and public health by making the archival collections of these prominent scientists, physicians, and others who have advanced the scientific enterprise available to the public through modern digital technology.
To get even more "up close and personal" with Dr. Nirenberg, visitors to the NLM may also conduct a virtual interview with Nirenberg, asking questions about his research in a user-friendly format called "Dialogues in Science." This voice-activated program is accessible in the NLM Visitor Center, on the first floor of Building 38A, the Lister Hill Center, Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, except on federal holidays or when tour groups are using the facility.
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