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Statement on Nobel Laureate Marshall W. Nirenberg: Decipherer of the Genetic Code

From the NHLBI Acting Director Susan B. Shurin, M.D.

For Immediate Release:
January 15, 2010

This afternoon we lost one of the greatest scientists of our time, Marshall W. Nirenberg, Ph.D., to a long battle with cancer.  Our deepest sympathies are with his wife, Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., other members of his family, and many friends and colleagues.
Dr. Nirenberg first came to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1957 at the age of 30 as a postdoctoral fellow in biological chemistry at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases.  It was in these early years that he achieved the first breakthrough in the work for which he was perhaps best known: deciphering the genetic code.  In 1962 he was appointed chief of the Section on Biochemical Genetics at the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), then the National Heart Institute.  There, through an ingenious experimental design and painstaking research, he uncovered the RNA sequences that encode all 20 amino acids (the "building blocks" of proteins).  The work earned him a Nobel Prize in 1968, making him the first NIH researcher and federal employee to receive the honor, and helped set the stage for the genomic era we are living in today.

Dr. Nirenberg remained an integral part of the NHLBI intramural program for 47 years.  Over the next decades, he continued to conduct pioneering research in areas as diverse as neuroblastoma, gene expression, stem cell differentiation, nervous system development and small-molecule screening.  His work, and the work of those who have followed in his footsteps, has deepened our knowledge in both the laboratory and the clinic about congenital heart disease, blood disorders, memory and addiction.  Along the way, he earned quite a collection of honorary degrees and awards, including the prestigious Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science.  In November 2009, the NIH celebrated with Dr. Nirenberg as the American Chemical Society recognized his research with the designation of a National Historical Chemical Landmark.

The numerous researchers Marshall trained have become scientific leaders around the country. Two of them earned Nobels themselves.  He was one of the first to foresee the possibility of genetic manipulation and cloning and helped lead a movement beginning in the 1960s to establish ethical guidelines.

Marshall's legacy of rigorous research, intellectual curiosity, and endless enthusiasm has already taken root among his colleagues at the NIH and beyond.   It was a pleasure and an honor to have him at the NHLBI over the past decades. He will be missed.


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