Birthday: April 10, 1927
Died At Age: 82
Sun Sign: Aries
Born in: Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States
Famous as: Biochemist and Geneticist
Died on: January 15, 2010
City: New York City
U.S. State: New Yorkers
awards: 1968 - Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1968 - Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
1968 - Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
1967 - Gairdner Foundation International Award
1962 - NAS Award in Molecular Biology
1965 - National Medal of Science for Biological Sciences
Marshall W. Nirenberg was an American biochemist and geneticist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 with Har Gobind Khorana and Robert W. Holley for "breaking the genetic code." He also won several other prestigious awards for his contributions to genetics and biochemistry. Born in New York City, he developed an early interest in biology. As a young man he attended the University of Florida at Gainesville from where he earned his B. Sc. and M. Sc. degrees in Zoology before working for his Ph. D. degree from the Department of Biological Chemistry at the University of Michigan. He eventually became a research biochemist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he initially focused his research on DNA, RNA and protein. In collaboration with H. Matthaei he demonstrated that messenger RNA is required for protein synthesis and that synthetic messenger RNA preparations can be used to decipher various aspects of the genetic code. His groundbreaking research led to his appointment as the head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics at the National Heart Institute, a position he served in until his death decades later. His later research focused on neuroscience, neural development, and the homeobox genes.
Childhood & Early Life
Marshall Warren Nirenberg was born on April 10, 1927, in New York City, to Minerva (Bykowsky) and Harry Edward Nirenberg, a shirtmaker. His family shifted to Florida when he was a young boy.
He developed an interest in biology early on. He enrolled at the University of Florida at Gainesville and earned his B. Sc. degree in 1948 and a master's degree in zoology in 1952. He was also a member of the Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity.
As a college student he became interested in biochemistry. He furthered his education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and earned his doctorate from the Department of Biological Chemistry in 1957. His Ph.D. thesis was on the study of a permease for hexose transport in ascites tumor cells.
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In 1957, he began his postdoctoral work with DeWitt Stetten Jr., and with William Jakoby at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a fellow of the American Cancer Society (then called the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases). After a couple of years he was made a research biochemist there.
He began to study the steps that relate DNA, RNA and protein in 1959. By this time, previous experiments by other scientists had had shown DNA to be the molecule of genetic information. However, it was not known how DNA directed the expression of proteins, or what role RNA had in these processes.
Nirenberg teamed up with his colleague, the German scientist Heinrich Matthaei, to solve the genetic code and demonstrated that messenger RNA is required for protein synthesis and that synthetic messenger RNA preparations can be used to decipher various aspects of the genetic code.
He was able to establish the rules by which the genetic information in DNA is translated into proteins, and identified the particular codons—a codon is a sequence of three chemical units of DNA—that specify each of the 20 amino acid units of which protein molecules are constructed.
He presented his findings before a small group of scientists at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in 1961. His discoveries were of great significance to the scientific fraternity and he quickly gained attention for the work he was doing.
In 1962, Nirenberg was promoted to the head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics in the National Heart Institute (now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), a position he held until his death.
He switched to neurobiology during his later years and performed studies on neuroscience, neural development, and the homeobox genes.
Marshall Nirenberg in collaboration with Heinrich Matthaei became the first team to elucidate the nature of a codon, in 1961, at the National Institutes of Health. Using a cell-free system to translate a poly-uracil RNA sequence, they discovered that the polypeptide that they had synthesized consisted of only the amino acid phenylalanine. This discovery led to the deduction that the codon UUU specified the amino acid phenylalanine.
Awards & Achievements
In 1964 he was awarded the National Medal of Science and in 1968, the National Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He also won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1968.
Marshall W. Nirenberg along with Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1968 "for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis".
Personal Life & Legacy
Marshall Nirenberg married Perola Zaltzman, a chemist from the University of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, in 1961. His wife died in 2001 after 40 years of marriage.
He tied the knot for the second time with Myrna M. Weissman, Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2005. He had four stepchildren from this marriage.
He suffered from cancer during his last months and died on January 15, 2010, aged 82.