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George Uhlenbeck

Marshall Nirenberg (1927-2010)

“It’s fun to discover things, and it’s important to discover things.”
–Marshall Nirenberg

National Medal of Science (NMS) recipient in 1964 “for studies of the genetic control of protein synthesis and, in particular, for deciphering the chemical code relating nucleic acid structures to protein structures.”

Marshall Nirenberg was born in New York City, but after developing rheumatic fever as a teenager, his family moved to Orlando, Fla., for the subtropical climate. In high school, Nirenberg enjoyed exploring the “natural paradise” of Florida, and kept detailed journals documenting his observations of local flora and fauna.

Nirenberg became interested in biochemistry while pursuing his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Florida. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1957, he began his career at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he studied the relationship between RNA, DNA and protein production. In 1961, Nirenberg and his assistant, J. Heinrich Matthaei, made the groundbreaking discovery that RNA is the director of protein synthesis.

Though very few people attended Nirenberg’s talk on this finding at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in 1961, the celebrated biologist Francis Crick was in attendence, and arranged for him to give the presentation a second time. In his repeat performance, more than 1,000 people attended and news of his discovery turned Nirenberg into an overnight celebrity.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported: “No stronger proof of the universality of all life has been developed since Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ demonstrated that all life is descended from one beginning.”

Following the announcement that Nirenberg had “cracked’ the genetic code, a race ensued to decipher the codons, or “code words,” of messenger RNA for all 20 amino acids. Despite competing against better-known, better-funded laboratories, Nirenberg succeeded in being the first to identify all 63 codons in the genetic code. For this achievement, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1968.

Following this achievement, Nirenberg turned to the field of neurobiology, where he used his knowledge of information processing to explore the workings of the brain. He pursued the topic for three decades, making significant contributions to cancer research and public health.

Throughout his career, Nirenberg expressed a commitment to practicing socially responsible science. In 1966, he quoted virologist Salvador Luria, who said that “the impact of science on human affairs imposes on its practitioners an inescapable responsibility.” Nirenberg was vocal about political, social and humanitarian issues, speaking out on subjects ranging from world hunger to nuclear war to stem cell research.

Upon Nirenberg’s death in 2010, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and fellow NMS recipient, called him “one of science's great titans.” He was predeceased by his wife of 40 years, Perola Zaltzman Nirenberg. His wife of four years, Myrna Weissman, is a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University.

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