Nirenberg, ina lab coat, sitsin his office by a blackboard and a cart of molecule models.

A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg

Tomorrow, March 17, 2015 the National Library of Medicine (NLM) will host the first of a “triplet” of events at the National Institutes of Health celebrating the legacy of Marshall Nirenberg and the fiftieth anniversary of his deciphering of the genetic code. The program, A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg, will include presentations from his wife, Dr. Myrna Weissman, Dr. Frank Portugal, author of a new book about Dr. Nirenberg, Historian, Dr. David Serlin. Additionally, Nirenberg’s Nobel Prize medal and certificate, awarded in 1968 and newly donated to the NLM through the generosity of Dr. Weissman, will be on display. On behalf of the NLM, Dr. George Thoma will also announce the release of a Turning the Pages interactive featuring Nirenberg’s first summary of the genetic code. Central to this anniversary are the documents, which Nirenberg and his staff created 50 years ago as part of their research and discovery, and which are preserved in NLM’s historical collections today so that future generations can appreciate this breakthrough in human understanding of the code of life.

Two men in lab coats pose as one of them writes on a piece of glass.
Heinrich Matthaei was Marshall Nirenberg’s first postdoctoral researcher. Their collaboration led to the first clue to the genetic code.
Profiles in Science

In 1959, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Nirenberg began his investigations into the relationship between deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the production of proteins. With J. Heinrich Matthaei, a young postdoctoral researcher from Bonn, Germany, he initiated a series of experiments using synthetic RNA. These two researchers 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.

Nirenberg’s work catapulted the scientist—whom the Washington Post described as “painfully modest”—to international fame. James F. Hogg, Nirenberg’s former advisor at the University of Michigan, joked in a letter that “In view of the very extensive recent publicity, we are considering putting a sign on our house, as follows ‘Painted by Marshall Nirenberg’ A.D. 1953. Would you please send a letter of authentication? We could then perhaps obtain a tax exemption as a historical site!”

During this same period, Nirenberg was offered professorships at a number of major universities across the United States. Nirenberg, however, declined all offers and chose to stay at NIH. A steady annual research budget, he believed, would enable him to remain devoted to his work rather than spend his time pursuing outside grants. In 1962, he was appointed Chief of the Section on Biochemical Genetics at the NIH’s National Heart Institute (NHI).

A large paper chart constructed of serveral pages taped together, handwritten in several colors of ink.
Nirenberg’s handwritten genetic code chart, 1965.
Profiles in Science

Matthaei left the NIH in 1962 and Nirenberg continued his work on the genetic code with a team of postdoctoral fellows and research technicians. On January 18, 1965, Nirenberg completed the first summary of the genetic code—one of the most significant documents in the history of twentieth-century science—a painstaking, handwritten chart detailing the discovery of how sequences of DNA, known as “triplets,” direct the assembly of amino acids into the structural and functional proteins essential to life.

By 1966, Nirenberg had deciphered all the RNA “codons”—the term used to describe the “code words” of messenger RNA—for all twenty 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.

“A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg” will be free, open to the public, and held on Tuesday, March 17 from 1:00 to 3:30 pm in the NLM’s Lister Hill Auditorium, Building 38a, on the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health. The event will also be live-streamed globally and subsequently archived for future viewing, and if you are on Twitter you can follow us by using #nirenberg50atNIH. Subsequent NIH events will be announced soon by the NIH Intramural Research Program.

Stay tuned all this week as Circulating Now brings you interviews with the presenters of “A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg.”

This article is part of a series that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Genetic Code Charts. Stay tuned throughout the year to learn more about Marshall Nirenberg and these ground breaking documents.

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