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Vol. LXI, No. 25
December 11, 2009
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Deciphering the Genetic Code
Symposium Recounts Nobel Laureate Nirenberg’s Triumphal Studies

On the front page...

The official occasion was the American Chemical Society’s designation of Dr. Marshall Nirenberg’s Nobel Prize-winning achievement of cracking the genetic code as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. But the day-long symposium held in Nirenberg’s honor Nov. 12 in Masur Auditorium was more a warm recognition by many colleagues that science’s top prize could not have gone to a nicer guy, or to one whose work opened any wider the floodgates of downstream scientific consequence.

Perhaps the highest encomium in a day filled with them was offered by another Nobel laureate, Dr. Philip A. Sharp of MIT, who with genuine emotion wondered “how exciting it must have been [for Nirenberg] to stand there and know that you have cracked the code, and that there’s only one code, and it will be the code universal for all of time…I envy Marshall being able to stand up there and give that talk…it must have been a tremendous day.” Like many others, Sharp also observed that Nirenberg “is a remarkably encouraging and friendly person.”

Continued...


  Dr. Marshall Nirenberg (r) and NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman flank the plaque designating NIH as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.  
  Dr. Marshall Nirenberg (r) and NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman flank the plaque designating NIH as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.  
Nirenberg first came to NIH in 1957 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1968, along with two other scientists. He was NIH’s first intramural Nobel laureate (there have since been four others) and, according to NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, represents “the very best of what the Intramural Research Program offers: high-risk, high-impact research supported by stable and steady funding…Marshall is an NIH’er tried and true…We are profoundly grateful that you have chosen to spend your research career at NIH.”

Nearly a dozen well-known scientists participated in the symposium titled “Genes to Proteins: Decoding Genetic Information.” Their presentations included both the personal (Gottesman recalled the day his teenage daughter and a friend encountered Nirenberg on a street in Bethesda and went away stunned that they had just met someone whose work was featured in their biology textbook) and the scientifically detailed (in addition to Sharp, distinguished speakers included NHLBI’s Drs. Keji Zhao and Robert Balaban, NCI’s Dr. Dolph Hatfield and NIH alumni Dr. Philip Leder and Dr. J. Craig Venter).

Nirenberg had reunions with many former colleagues, including his former postdoc Dr. C. Thomas Caskey (r), now with the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston.
Nirenberg had reunions with many former colleagues, including his former postdoc Dr. C. Thomas Caskey (r), now with the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston.

The celebration’s chair and first speaker Dr. Alan Schechter, a longtime NIDDK scientist, noted that “as large a place as NIH is, it is strongly affected by the personalities of a small group of people.” He called Nirenberg “a beacon, both scientifically and philosophically, for the Intramural Research Program” and a model of collaborative science. “He is one of our giants,” said Schechter, adding that the Office of NIH History has recently revamped its Nirenberg exhibit and plans to relocate it in the Clinical Center’s south lobby.

NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers described Nirenberg as “reticent by nature, but resolute in his scientific ideas,” and noted that Nirenberg started NIH’s first laboratory of molecular biology. To Rodgers, Nirenberg’s scientific biography shows “the importance of supporting brilliance in our midst, which requires an open mind and an open heart.”

Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, NHLBI director, called Nirenberg, who has spent 47 years in the Intramural Research Program, “a true scientific hero…he knows how to pick the right problem and how to solve it, and also how to choose the right team.” Two of his collaborators, Drs. Joseph Goldstein and Alfred Gilman, themselves became Nobel laureates, she noted.

Perfect storm? Several factors—
an influx of ARRA funding, a sluggish national economy and rising unemployment
rates—combined to provide a favorable atmosphere for hiring at NIH. Recruiting potential employees at a recent job fair are (from l) Krishawn Demby, Sara Prather and Ed Langford, all of the Office of Human Resources
The celebration’s chair and first speaker Dr. Alan Schechter, a longtime NIDDK scientist, called Nirenberg “a beacon, both scientifically and philosophically, for the Intramural Research Program.”

Nirenberg “is boundlessly enthusiastic about new approaches,” Nabel added. “His rigor, intensity, intellect and pure joy have made him an NHLBI gold standard in how we judge excellence. He was and is someone you can always get behind…he’s a terrific guy, a terrific researcher, a terrific friend and a terrific colleague.”

Appearing via videotape because he was unable to attend in person, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins recounted Nirenberg’s initial misgivings about embarking on a mission to crack the code, which one of Nirenberg’s colleagues had warned was “suicidal.” Nirenberg decided his urge to explore outweighed his fear of failure and forged ahead. Said Collins, “We all know that Marshall’s wish to explore turned into a revelation about biology that is almost unmatched in terms of its consequences for our understanding of life.” Labeling Nirenberg “not only a scientist’s scientist, but also a mentor’s mentor,” Collins also cited Nirenberg’s prescience in anticipating the potential harm of misusing genetic science; a 1967 Science editorial by Nirenberg cautioned that society, not science, must determine how much tinkering with humankind’s own cell lines is acceptable.

Nobel laureate and MIT professor Dr. Philip A. Sharp wondered how triumphant Nirenberg must have felt once he uncovered the genetic code “universal for all of time.”
Nobel laureate and MIT professor Dr. Philip A. Sharp wondered how triumphant Nirenberg must have felt once he uncovered the genetic code “universal for all of time.”

One of Nirenberg’s former postdocs-made-good, Dr. C. Thomas Caskey, who is now director and CEO of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, called Nirenberg a brilliant innovator. “Marshall selected really tough and important questions, but the tools were not yet there to achieve his vision,” said Caskey, who then enumerated three key innovations: in vitro assays for protein synthesis, the tools to determine sequence and specificity and the discovery of genetic start/stop signals, or punctuation.

“No technology existed for these three steps,” said Caskey. “It was great fun to participate in it.”

Nirenberg, who is chief of NHLBI’s Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics, made his own scientific creed known in an ACS interview last summer: “I thought if I’m going to work this hard, I might just as well have fun and by fun I mean I wanted to explore an important problem and I wanted to discover things.”

At the symposium, he thanked the many scientists at NIH, both senior investigators, trainees and even visiting scientists, who had helped him, circa 1961-1966, elucidate the genetic code—you would have thought from his generous remarks that he did virtually nothing himself. Many returned for the event and Nirenberg gave them medallions in recognition of their work.

At a reception after the symposium, an NHLBI staffer overheard Nirenberg recalling wisdom passed down to him from his mother: “When I was about 6 or 7 playing on the living room floor with building blocks, I built something. I said to my mother, ‘Look what I created!’ She replied, ‘What is it?’ ‘I don’t know. What does it look like to you?’ She said, ‘That’s not the way to create. You have to know what you want to create before you build it.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

The symposium concluded with presentation of the National Historic Chemical Landmark plaque by Dr. Thomas Lane, president of the American Chemical Society. The day’s proceedings are available for viewing at http://videocast. nih.gov. NIHRecord Icon

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