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National Library of Medicine

Tuesday, May 15, 2001

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Papers of Nobel Scientist Marshall Nirenberg added to "Profiles in Science"

As a budding teenage zoologist who frequented the swamps of Florida to collect insects in the 1940's, Marshall Nirenberg was an adept observer of plant life, insects, and birds. He captured these observations through carefully written and maintained notes. It was a habit that was to serve him well in the future.

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1961, Nirenberg embarked upon a series of experiments that became the foundation for groundbreaking work on deciphering the genetic code.

"Our contemporary understanding of the genetic code would not have been possible without the discoveries of Dr. Marshall Nirenberg, who shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology," said Dr. Alexa McCray, who heads the Profiles in Science project.

Dr. Nirenberg is the sixth scientist to be added to NLM's Profiles in Science website (, dedicated to the lives and works of prominent 20th century biomedical scientists. The intent of the website is to have scientists, scholars, and students appreciate the history, and share some of the excitement of early scientific discoveries in molecular biology. Nirenberg joins Oswald Avery, Joshua Lederberg, Martin Rodbell, Julius Axelrod, and Christian Anfinsen on the website.

Born April 10, 1927, in New York City, Marshall Nirenberg spent his teenage years in Orlando, Florida. He received his B.S. degree in zoology and chemistry from the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1948, and earned a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1957. An American Cancer Society fellowship brought Nirenberg to the National Institutes of Health. He joined the staff there in 1960 and still maintains a laboratory in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

In 1959 Nirenberg began his investigations into the relationship between deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the production of proteins. With Heinrich J. Matthaei, a young postdoctoral researcher from Bonn, Germany, Nirenberg initiated a series of famous experiments using synthetic RNA. These two researchers were able to show how RNA transcribes genetic "messages" that are encoded in DNA and translates them so that amino acids know how, and in which order, to combine to make proteins. Nirenberg had, in effect, cracked the secrets of the genetic code.

In 1968, Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for [the] 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. This remarkable personal and scientific accomplishment held great significance, not only for Nirenberg but also for the history of modern science.

Public response to cracking the genetic code was mixed. In December 1961, the New York Times reported on Nirenberg's discovery by explaining "the science of biology has reached a new frontier," leading to "a revolution far greater in its potential significance than the atomic or hydrogen bomb." Others, however, did not share such enthusiasms. Arne Wilhelm Kaurin Tiselius, the 1948 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, asserted that this knowledge could "lead to methods of tampering with life, of creating new diseases, of controlling minds, of influencing heredity, even perhaps in certain desired directions." In 1962, Nirenberg half-joked to Francis Crick, "[T]he American press has been saying that [my] work may result in (1) the cure of cancer and allied diseases (2) the cause of cancer and the end of mankind, and (3) a better knowledge of the molecular structure of God. Well, it's all in a day's work."

Since the late 1960s, Nirenberg has pursued myriad topics in neurobiology and neurogenetics, including the development of neuroblastoma tumor cells, and the expression of genes in the retinal portion of the eye. At present, Dr. Nirenberg is using advanced digital scanning technology to study the genetic development of neural networks in the brains of fruit fly embryos.

The online Profiles in Science exhibit features correspondence, laboratory notes, unpublished manuscripts, photographs, and reflects the many research projects Dr. Nirenberg has undertaken during the more than 40 years he has been associated with the NIH. Visitors to the Marshall Nirenberg site can view, for example, the original notes that Nirenberg delivered at a historic Moscow conference in 1961. Visitors can also see photographs of Nirenberg during his work on the genetic code. The online collection, however, is only a small sampling of the full scope of the Marshall Nirenberg Papers, the vast bulk of which have yet to be fully processed.

Profiles in Science was launched September 1998 by the National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. It is a continuing project and the Library plans to announce each new collection as it is added to the site.

Note to editors: Photographs of Dr. Nirenberg are available from the NLM (email requests to