NIH scientist Marshall Nirenberg dies; deciphered code

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; B04

Marshall W. Nirenberg, 82, a Nobel Prize-winning National Institutes of Health geneticist who deciphered the genetic code in 1961, died Jan. 15 of cancer at his New York home. He also lived in Potomac.

Dr. Nirenberg, who in 1968 became the first federal employee to win a Nobel in physiology or medicine, was "one of science's great titans," NIH Director Francis S. Collins said in a statement.

As a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, Dr. Nirenberg joined the mad dash by scientists to build on the work of James Watson and Francis Crick, among others, who discovered the double-helix shape of DNA.

Working day and night, Dr. Nirenberg and his assistant, Heinrich Matthaei, discovered how RNA transmits the "messages" that are encoded in DNA and directs how amino acids combine to make proteins. They had found the first of 64 three-letter "words" in which the instructions of life are written.

"I literally jumped for joy," he told an interviewer in 2005. "It's fun to discover things, and it's important to discover things."

In the summer of 1961, he presented his findings at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow. But his talk was nearly ignored because "he was not a member of the club," wrote Horace Freeland Judson in "The Eighth Day of Creation" (1979). Luckily, one of the scientists who heard his initial talk persuaded the conference leaders to invite Dr. Nirenberg to repeat his performance. Speaking before an assembly of more than a thousand people, Dr. Nirenberg electrified the crowd.

Once his technique was publicly announced, Dr. Nirenberg still had an enormous amount of work to do; he had identified a few of the code words, but there were dozens to go. Bigger, better-equipped research labs were at work on the same problem, while Dr. Nirenberg and Matthaei were working alone.

"Faced with the possibility of helping the first NIH scientist win a Nobel prize, many NIH scientists put aside their own work to help Nirenberg," the NIH said in a history of its role in deciphering the code. "All in all, more than 20 people came through Nirenberg's laboratory."

By 1965, Dr. Nirenberg, with help from those colleagues, created what is essentially biology's Rosetta stone: a 64-square table that shows the relationship between DNA and proteins and that is still used.

"We found that all species, all forms of life on this planet use the same language, molecular language," he said in the 2005 interview. "We compared the code in bacteria to the language used in an amphibian, to a mammal and found that it's the same language. . . . You can look at trees, flowers, squirrels, birds and you know that we're all related."

Dr. Nirenberg shared the Nobel with Har Gobind Khorana of the University of Wisconsin, who mastered the synthesis of nucleic acids, and Robert W. Holley of the Salk Institute, who discovered the exact chemical structure of transfer-RNA.

In a 1967 article in Science magazine, Dr. Nirenberg became one of the first scientists to warn that "decisions concerning the application of this knowledge must ultimately be made by society, and only an informed society can make such decisions wisely." He joined several public efforts by scientists to warn of the madness of the nuclear weapons race, to encourage scientific literacy by the public and to appeal to global powers to negotiate an end to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Born April 10, 1927, in New York, Marshall Warren Nirenberg moved with his family to Orlando in 1941 after he developed rheumatic fever. He graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in zoology and chemistry. He received his doctorate in biological chemistry at the University of Michigan in 1957. He immediately joined NIH as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, now the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

He spent his career at NIH, telling the New York Times in 1987: "I have been tempted to leave but I always ask myself, could I do better work someplace else, and I don't think I could. The salary here is relatively low, but the advantage to N.I.H. is that you can use your time completely for research without the distraction of teaching or committee work.''

Colleagues described Dr. Nirenberg as enthusiastic about the work of others and highly collegial. His Nobel banquet speech shared credit with those who collaborated and competed: "One individual alone creates only a note or so that blends with those produced by others. The advances that have been described here today are due to the efforts of investigators throughout the world."

Researchers who worked under him became scientific leaders in labs around the world, including two who earned their own Nobel Prizes.

Dr. Nirenberg continued to make significant discoveries in neurobiology and genetics, from pioneering work in culturing neural cells to studying gene expression, stem cell differentiation and nervous system development. In the 1980s, Dr. Nirenberg and an associate discovered a fruit fly gene that is essential for normal heart development, which is helping clinicians understand congenital heart disease. Most recently, he made innovations in small-molecule screening for applications in addiction, memory, and heart and blood disorders.

Among his awards were the National Medal of Science in 1966 and the National Medal of Honor in 1968.

His wife of 40 years, Perola Zaltzman Nirenberg, died in 2001.

Survivors include his wife of four years, Myrna M. Weissman of New York and Potomac; four stepchildren, Susan Weissman of Evanston, Ill., Judith Weissman of New York, Sharon Weissman of New Haven, Conn., and Jonathan Weissman of San Francisco; a sister; and seven grandchildren.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company