Marshall Warren Nirenberg

Marshall Warren Nirenberg
Marshall Warren Nirenberg

Marshall Warren Nirenberg
Born April 10, 1927
New York City
Died January 15, 2010(2010-01-15) (aged 82)
New York City
Nationality United States
Alma mater University of Florida
University of Michigan
Known for genetic code
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968
Franklin Medal in 1968
A picture of Nirenberg and Matthaei from 1961
A picture of Nirenberg from 1962.

Marshall Warren Nirenberg (April 10, 1927 – January 15, 2010)[1] was an American biochemist and geneticist of Jewish origin.[2] He shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 with Har Gobind Khorana and Robert W. Holley for "breaking the genetic code" and describing how it operates in protein synthesis. In the same year, together with Har Gobind Khorana, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University.



By 1959, experiments and analysis such as the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment, the Hershey-Chase experiment, the Watson-Crick structure and the Meselson-Stahl experiment had shown DNA to be the molecule of genetic information. It was not known, however, how DNA directed the expression of proteins, or what role RNA had in these processes. Nirenberg teamed up with Heinrich J. Matthaei at the National Institutes of Health to answer these questions. They produced RNA comprised solely of uracil, a nucleotide that only occurs in RNA. They then added this synthetic poly-uracil RNA into a cell-free extract of Escherichia coli which contained the DNA, RNA, ribosomes and other cellular machinery for protein synthesis. They added DNase, which breaks apart the DNA, so that no additional proteins would be produced other than that from their synthetic RNA. They then added 1 radioactively labeled amino acid, the building blocks of proteins, and 19 unlabeled amino acids to the extract, varying the labeled amino acid in each sample. In the extract containing the radioactively labeled phenylalanine, the resulting protein was also radioactive. They realized that they had found the genetic code for phenylalanine: UUU (three uracil bases in a row) on RNA. This was the first step in deciphering the codons of the genetic code and the first demonstration of messenger RNA (see Nirenberg and Matthaei experiment).[3][4][5][6][7][8][9]

In August 1961, at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow, Nirenberg presented a paper to a small group of scientists. Francis Crick convinced the conference leaders to invite Nirenberg to repeat his performance the next day.[10][11] Speaking before the assembled congress of more than a thousand people, Nirenberg electrified the scientific community. He quickly received great scientific attention for these experiments. Within a few years, his research team had performed similar experiments and found that three-base repeats of adenosine (AAA) produced the amino acid lysine, and cytosine repeats (CCC) produced proline. The next breakthrough came when Philip Leder, a postdoctoral researcher in Nirenberg's lab, developed a method for determining the genetic code on pieces of tRNA (see Nirenberg and Leder experiment). This greatly sped up the assignment of three-base codons to amino acids so that 50 codons were identified in this way. Khorana's experiments confirmed these results and completed the genetic code translation.

The period between 1961 and 1962 is often referred to as the “coding race” because of the competition between the labs of Nirenberg at NIH and Nobel laureate Severo Ochoa at New York University Medical School, who had a massive staff. Faced with the possibility of helping the first NIH scientist win a Nobel prize, many NIH scientists put aside their own work to help Nirenberg in deciphering the mRNA codons for amino acids. Dr. DeWitt Stetten, Jr., director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, called this period of collaboration “NIH's finest hour.”[12]

Nirenberg's later research focused on neuroscience, neural development, and the homeobox genes.


Nirenberg was born in New York City, the son of Harry and Minerva Nirenberg. He developed rheumatic fever as a boy, so the family moved to Orlando, Florida to take advantage of the subtropical climate. He developed an early interest in biology. In 1948 he received his B.S. degree, and in 1952, a master's degree in zoology from the University of Florida at Gainesville where he was also a member of the Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity.[13] His dissertation for the Master's thesis was an ecological and taxonomic study of caddis flies (Trichoptera). He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1957.

He began his postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1957 as a fellow of the American Cancer Society in what was then called the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases. In 1959 he became a research biochemist at the NIH and began to study the steps that relate DNA, RNA and protein. Nirenberg's groundbreaking experiments advanced him to become the head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics in 1962 in the National Heart Institute (now the National Institute of Heart, Lung and Blood Diseases), where he remained a laboratory chief until his death. He was married in 1961 to Perola Zaltzman, a chemist from the University of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, who also worked at NIH and died in 2001. Nirenberg married Myrna M. Weissman, Ph.D., Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2005. He had four stepchildren: Susan Weissman of Evanston, Illinois, Judith Weissman of New York, New York, Sharon Weissman of New Haven, Connecticut, and Jonathan Weissman of San Francisco, California.

Nirenberg was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1964 and the National Medal of Honor in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2001. He died on January 15, 2010, from cancer after several months of illness.

See also

  • History of RNA biology
  • List of Jewish Nobel laureates
  • List of RNA biologists
  • Heinrich Matthaei


  1. ^ Wade, Nicholas (January 21, 2010), "Marshall Nirenberg, Biologist Who Untangled Genetic Code, Dies at 82", NY Times, 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Leder, P; Nirenberg, M W (1964), "RNA CODEWORDS AND PROTEIN SYNTHESIS, III. ON THE NUCLEOTIDE SEQUENCE OF A CYSTEINE AND A LEUCINE RNA CODEWORD", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 52 (6): 1521–1529, 1964 December, doi:10.1073/pnas.52.6.1521, PMC 300480, PMID 14243527, 
  4. ^ Eiserling, F; Levin, J G; Byrne, R; Karlsson, U; Nirenberg, MW; Sjoestrand, FS (1964), "Polyribosomes and DNA-dependent Amino Acid Incorporation in Escherichia coli Extracts", Journal of Molecular Biology 10 (3): 536–40, 1964 December, doi:10.1016/S0022-2836(64)80073-5, PMID 14257696 
  5. ^ BLADEN, H A; BYRNE, R; LEVIN, J G; NIRENBERG, M W (1965), "AN ELECTRON MICROSCOPIC STUDY OF A DNA-RIBOSOME COMPLEX FORMED IN VITRO", J. Mol. Biol. 11: 78–83, 1965 Jan, doi:10.1016/S0022-2836(65)80172-3, PMID 14255762 
  7. ^ TRUPIN, J S; ROTTMAN, F M; BRIMACOMBE, R L; LEDER, P; Bernfield, MR; Nirenberg, MW (1965), "RNA CODEWORDS AND PROTEIN SYNTHESIS, VI. ON THE NUCLEOTIDE SEQUENCES OF DEGENERATE CODEWORD SETS FOR ISOLEUCINE, TYROSINE, ASPARAGINE, AND LYSINE", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 53 (4): 807–11, 1965 Apr, doi:10.1073/pnas.53.4.807, PMC 221071, PMID 14324538, 
  8. ^ Jones, O W; Nirenberg, M W (1966), "Degeneracy in the amino acid code", Biochim. Biophys. Acta 119 (2): 400–6, 1966 May 19, PMID 5335948 
  9. ^ Kellogg, D A; Doctor, B P; Loebel, J E; Nirenberg, M W (1966), "RNA codons and protein synthesis. IX. Synonym codon recognition by multiple species of valine-, alanine-, and methionine-sRNA", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 55 (4): 912–9, 1966 Apr, doi:10.1073/pnas.55.4.912, PMC 224250, PMID 5327071, 
  10. ^ Caskey, C. Thomas (Mar 2010), "Obituary: Marshall Nirenberg (1927-2010)", Nature 464 (7285): 44, doi:10.1038/464044a, PMID 20203601. 
  11. ^ Leder, Philip (Feb 2010), "Retrospective. Marshall Warren Nirenberg (1927-2010)", Science 327 (5968): 972, doi:10.1126/science.1187484, PMID 20167780. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Membership Directory, 2010, Pi Lambda Phi Inc.


Further reading

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  • Nirenberg, Marshall Warren — born April 10, 1927, New York, N.Y., U.S. U.S. biochemist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He demonstrated that each possible triplet (codon) of the four different kinds of nitrogen containing bases found in DNA and (in… …   Universalium

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  • Nirenberg, Marshall Warren — (n. 10 abr. 1927, Nueva York, N.Y., EE.UU.). Bioquímico estadounidense. Obtuvo un Ph.D. en la Universidad de Michigan. Demostró que cada tripleta posible (codón) de las cuatro clases de bases nitrogenadas presentes en el ADN y (en algunos virus)… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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