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Election Year: 1967
Scientific Discipline: Biochemistry
Membership Type: Member
Marshall Nirenberg conducted biochemical research on the genetic codes for protein synthesis. He identified the sixty four codons, a triplet code of DNA units, which translate into the twenty amino acids that comprise all proteins. Using a cell-free system, Nirenberg tagged the codons with polyuridylic acid, RNA comprised of only uracil, to determine the codon for phenylalanine. He applied this process for the remaining sixty three codons. This study has illuminated patterns of protein modification that result from genetic mutation. In 1968 Nirenberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Har Gobind Khorana and Robert W. Holley “for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis".
After graduating from the University of Florida at Gainesville, Nirenberg earned his PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1957. He completed his postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health as a fellow of the American cancer Society and in 1959 he became a research biochemist. In 1962 he served as head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics in the National Heart Institute. President Johnson awarded Nirenberg the National Medal of Science in 1964 and the National Medal of Honor in 1968.