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Office of NIH History

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Office of NIH History
Sarah Leavitt

Launch of NIH Web Exhibit,
"Deciphering the Genetic Code: An Exhibit Honoring the Work of Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg"

The Office of NIH History and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are pleased to announce the launch of a new web-based exhibit on the NIH's first intramural Nobel Laureate, Marshall Nirenberg.

Marshall Nirenberg is best known for "breaking the genetic code" in 1961, an achievement that won him the Nobel Prize. But what exactly is the genetic code? And how did he decipher it? This exhibit explores genetics research in the 1950s and 1960s and explains the importance of Nirenberg's experiments and discoveries. For at least a century and a half, the method by which organisms inherit and pass along certain traits has fascinated scientists all over the world. From Gregor Mendel's pea plant experiments to the Human Genome Project, new discoveries have deepened our understanding of how life is sustained and changed from generation to generation.

"Nirenberg's work," notes NIH Historian Victoria A. Harden, "explained the function of the genetic code, as opposed to Watson & Crick's determination of the structure of DNA. Knowing the structure suggested possible mechanisms of action, but knowing which mechanism was correct and how it worked to instruct the synthesis of proteins made the Genome Project and biotechnology and everything else possible."

This exhibit outlines the history of genetics research, focusing on Nirenberg's work in the 1960s which led to a new understanding of the genetic code. Featured in the exhibit are photographs of the people involved in the research as well as the scientific instruments used in the experiments. A helpful glossary explains the terms for non-scientists.

The Nirenberg web exhibit (www.history.nih.gov/exhibits/nirenberg) complements a physical display located at the NIH Clinical Center (Building 10) where visitors can view the actual instruments used in the experiments.

The Office of NIH History and the Stetten Museum are components of the Office of Communications and Public Liaison in the NIH Office of the Director. "Deciphering the Genetic Code" was curated by Sarah Leavitt, Ph.D., Associate NIH Historian, and was produced by the Stetten Museum in collaboration with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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