skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXII, No. 3
February 5, 2010

previous story

next story

Nobelist Nirenberg, Discoverer of the Genetic Code, Mourned

  Dr. Marshall Warren Nirenberg  
  Dr. Marshall Warren Nirenberg  

Dr. Marshall Warren Nirenberg, who discovered the genetic code used by virtually all living organisms to translate the information in DNA molecules into protein structure, died of cancer Jan. 15 in New York after an illness of several months. His work is considered one of the major milestones of biological research during the last century.

“Marshall’s wish to explore turned into a revelation about biology that is almost unmatched in terms of its consequences for understanding of life,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “He was not only a scientist’s scientist, but a mentor’s mentor...we mourn the loss of a true scientific hero.”

Nirenberg’s initial contribution to solving what had become a central problem in biology came in 1961, several years after he joined NIH. By the mid-1950s, largely due to the work of James Watson and the late Francis Crick, it had been realized that genetic information was contained in the chemical structure of DNA molecules and was used to determine the structure of proteins, which conduct most cellular functions. Working separately from many other investigators who were attempting more theoretical approaches, Nirenberg with his colleague Heinrich Matthaei devised an experimental approach that allowed the first demonstration of the connection between the chemical composition of DNA and that of the proteins.

Nirenberg presented his results at a small session at the International Biochemistry Congress in Moscow in the summer of 1961, but when word of his findings spread, he was asked to repeat his presentation to a large group at the congress the next day. His findings electrified the field and led to a period of great activity in the scientific community to work out the full “code” connecting the chemical sequence of the DNA nucleotides or “bases” with the sequence of the protein components, amino acids.

Working with many colleagues at NIH, Nirenberg devised several new methods and by the mid-1960s was able to develop a simple but elegant diagram—still reproduced in biochemistry and genetics textbooks—that shows the exact relationship between the four nucleotides of DNA, taken three at a time, and the 20 amino acids commonly found in proteins.

The discovery of the genetic code and the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953 are generally considered the two transformational events in making biology a molecular science and are the fundamental basis of the subsequent sequencing of the billions of nucleotides in human DNA molecules, as part of the Human Genome Project, and the sequencing of the DNA of hundreds of other living organisms.

Nirenberg shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Robert W. Holley and H. Gobind Khorana for these accomplishments and was the first NIH scientist to be so honored.

Nirenberg (r) was honored last November with presentation of a National Historic Chemical Landmark plaque by Dr. Thomas Lane (l), president of the American Chemical Society.
Nirenberg (r) was honored last November with presentation of a National Historic Chemical Landmark plaque by Dr. Thomas Lane (l), president of the American Chemical Society.

Nirenberg was born in New York on Apr. 10, 1927, but at the age of 12 moved to Orlando, where he became interested in biology. He studied at the University of Florida, where he received a B.Sc. degree in 1948 and an M.Sc. degree in 1952. In 1957, he received a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan and then did 2 years of postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases at NIH.

In 1959, as a new research biochemist, and to the surprise of his colleagues, he began his work on the important but difficult problem of the genetic code. In 1962, he transferred to the National Heart Institute (now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) where he remained as a laboratory chief until his death. After the completion of the deciphering of the genetic code and the demonstration of its near universality in animals, plants and micro-organisms, Nirenberg’s interests turned to the application of molecular concepts and methods to the field of neurobiology. He pioneered studies of neuronal cells in tissue culture and identified signaling pathways in these cells. As recently as last year he continued to publish scientific papers on the molecular basis of memory, including the new use of genomic techniques derived from his 1960 studies “as starting points for [identifying] potentially memory-enhancing therapeutics.”

Nirenberg was among the first to call attention to potential social consequences of the new genetic techniques and was particularly appreciated by his colleagues at NIH as a mentor for young scientists and for the collaborative way in which he approached research. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees. Last November, the American Chemical Society designated his work as a National Historic Chemical Landmark (see Dec. 11, 2009 NIH Record).

“Marshall’s legacy of rigorous research, intellectual curiosity and endless enthusiasm has already taken root among his colleagues at the NIH and beyond,” said NHLBI acting director Dr. Susan Shurin. “It was a pleasure and an honor to have him at the NHLBI over the past decades. He will be missed.”

Nirenberg’s first wife, the late Dr. Perola Zaltzman Nirenberg, also a biochemist at NIH, died in 2001. He is survived by his second wife, Dr. Myrna Weissman, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University; a sister, Joan N. Geiger of Dallas; and four stepchildren and their children. NIHRecord Icon

back to top of page