Marshall Warren Nirenberg

  • From:

    National Institute of Health │ Bethesda, Maryland

  • Year:


  • Subject:

    Life Science

  • Award:


  • Citation:

    For breaking the genetic code.

Marshall Nirenberg was born in New York City in 1927, but the family moved to Florida in 1939 for his health. There Nirenberg developed a fascination with the natural world and decided to become a scientist. He attended the University of Florida at Gainesville, and in 1948 he received a B. Sc. degree, and in 1952, a M. Sc. degree in Zoology. He continued studies in this field at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and in 1957 received the Ph. D. degree from the Department of Biological Chemistry.

From 1957 to 1959, he obtained postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health as a fellow of the American Cancer Society. During the next year, he held a Public Health Service Fellowship and in 1960 became a research biochemist in the Section of Metabolic Enzymes at the National Institutes of Health. In 1959, he began to study the steps that relate DNA, RNA and protein. These investigations with H. Matthaei were able to demonstrate 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, which he first made public at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in August 1961. By early 1962, the significance of these early experiments was recognized throughout the world, after the popular media highlighted the importance of their work as a major scientific breakthrough.

In 1962, he became head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics at the National Institutes of Health. 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," as well as the Benjamin Franklin Award from The Franklin Institute.

Information as of 1968