Marshall W. Nirenberg (1927-2010)


Marshall W. Nirenberg is credited with breaking the genetic code; he first identified the mechanism that translates the DNA code into specific proteins using RNA. With post-doc J. Heinrich Matthaei, Nirenberg used messenger RNA produced by non-enzymic chemical synthesis to demonstrate this process and then define the three-base DNA units that code for each of the 20-odd amino acids. Nirenberg was appointed research biochemist in the Section of Metabolic Enzymes in the then-National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases in 1960 (now NIDDK), following several years as an NIH postdoctoral fellow. He became head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics in 1962. In 1965, Nirenberg changed the emphasis of his research to neurobiology at NINDS. Nirenberg published scientific papers into his 90s; the last is dated 2009. He was awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in conjunction with Robert W. Holley and H. Gobind Khorana, who had independently pursued the genetic code. He was the recipient of many additional awards. In 2009, the American Chemical Society designated his work as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Portrait of Marshall Nirenberg


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