Marshall Warren Nirenberg was born in New York City. In 1941, Marshall developed rheumatic fever, and the Nirenberg family moved to Orlando, Florida, to take advantage of the subtropical climate. During his teens, Nirenberg developed a scientific and aesthetic appreciation for the natural world. Reminiscing about his childhood, he remarked in 1992 that "Florida was a natural paradise in those days. And I was the kind of kid who was happy exploring swamps and caves, and collecting spiders." Nirenberg became an adept observer of plant life, insects, and birds, and captured these observations through carefully written and maintained notes. These sketches and notes presaged a career in which scientific diaries filled with thorough documentation provided a constant source of inspiration for research and analysis. In 1945, Nirenberg graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He earned his B.S. degree in zoology and chemistry in 1948. In 1950, he resumed his studies at Florida and took a M.S. degree in zoology in 1952, writing a master's thesis on caddis flies.
Later in 1952, Nirenberg moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. In 1957, Nirenberg earned a Ph.D. in biological chemistry by writing a dissertation on the uptake of hexose, a type of sugar, by tumor cells. In 1959, Nirenberg was chosen as a postdoctoral fellow of the Public Health Service's Section on Metabolic Enzymes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The following year, Nirenberg joined the NIH staff as a research biochemist.
In 1959, Nirenberg began his investigations into the relationship between deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the production of proteins. With Heinrich J. Matthaei, a young postdoctoral researcher from Bonn, Germany, he initiated a series of experiments using synthetic RNA. These two researchers were able to show how RNA transmits the "messages" that are encoded in DNA and direct how amino acids combine to make proteins. These experiments became the foundation of Nirenberg's groundbreaking work on the genetic code. By early 1962, the significance of these early experiments was recognized throughout the world, after the popular media highlighted the importance of their work as a major scientific breakthrough.
Nirenberg's work catapulted the scientist--whom the Washington Post described as "painfully modest"--to international fame. James F. Hogg, Nirenberg's former advisor at the University of Michigan, joked in a letter that "In view of the very extensive recent publicity, we are considering putting a sign on our house, as follows 'Painted by Marshall [W.] Nirenberg' A.D. 1953. Would you please send a letter of authentication? We could then perhaps obtain a tax exemption as a historical site!" In 1962, less than one year after he had first announced his successful experiment with synthetic RNA, he received the Molecular Biology Award from the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1962, he was appointed Chief of the Section on Biochemical Genetics at the NIH's National Heart Institute (NHI). After Matthaei's departure from the NIH in 1962, Nirenberg continued his work on the genetic code with a team of postdoctoral fellows and research technicians. By 1966, Nirenberg had deciphered all the RNA "codons" -- the term used to describe the "code words" of messenger RNA -- for all twenty major amino acids. Two years later, in 1968, Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis." He shared the award with Robert W. Holley of Cornell University and Har Gobind Khorana of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
After Nirenberg's research on the genetic code, he turned to the field of neurobiology. Nirenberg chose neurobiology because it is the only other biological system besides the genetic code that is designed for information processing. DNA processes genetic information, and the brain processes mental information. The new scientific arena gave Nirenberg the freedom to ask new questions, solve new problems, and explore new biological puzzles. Nirenberg would devote the next thirty years of his scientific career to the investigation of various aspects of neurobiology.
Adapted from biographical information provided courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.