ACS to honor deciphering of the genetic code as a National Historic Chemical Landmark

November 02, 2009

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2009 -- The deciphering of the genetic code will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society (ACS) in a ceremony on Nov. 12.

The work of Marshall Nirenberg, PH.D., and colleagues will be honored at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. Thomas H. Lane, Ph.D., president of the Society, will present the plaque to Michael Gottesman, M.D., deputy director for intramural research at NIH.

"Marshall Nirenberg's work in deciphering the genetic code is one of the great accomplishments in chemistry and it paved the way for many of the advances in molecular genetics, including the mapping of the human genome," Lane says. "This research is richly deserving to become a National Historic Chemical Landmark as it demonstrates how the transforming power of chemistry can and does improve people's lives."

Francis Collins, director of NIH, says Nirenberg's research "has been the foundation upon which all subsequent genetic progress rests." Collins adds, "We are proud that NIH has been his research home all these years, and his tradition of cutting edge work is vigorously demonstrated by a recent foray into small molecule research. It is fair to say that Dr. Nirenberg's discoveries contributed to our completing the human genome, mapping human genetic variation and studying the correlations between variation and disease. One day, when medicine is able to marshal the power of this knowledge to personalize medicine for every individual, the full promise of Nirenberg's work will be realized."

After James Watson and Francis Crick electrified the scientific world with their model of DNA, the double helix, scientists jockeyed to be the first to unlock the keys of the genetic code which translates DNA's information into proteins. Nirenberg, a young researcher at NIH who had no formal training in molecular genetics, decided to enter the fray. At that time, Nirenberg said in 2009, "The mechanism of protein synthesis was very incompletely known and messenger RNA [ribonucleic acid] had not been discovered."

Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei, a postdoctoral fellow from Germany, began to map the process by which DNA is translated into proteins. Their breakthrough came in May 1961 in an experiment in which synthetic RNA directed protein synthesis, proving that messenger RNA transcribes genetic information from DNA. Simply put: the key to breaking the genetic code had been discovered.

Nirenberg and Matthaei had "cracked" the first "word" of the genetic code. Research shifted to translating the unique code words for each amino acid -- the building blocks of proteins -- in hopes of reading the entire genetic code of living organisms. Nirenberg, aided by colleagues at NIH, won this race, too. By 1966, Nirenberg had deciphered the 64 RNA three-letter code words, known as codons, for all twenty amino acids.

In 1968 Nirenberg shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Har Gobind Khorana (University of Wisconsin), who mastered the synthesis of nucleic acids, and Robert Holley (Cornell University), who discovered the chemical structure of transfer-RNA. Collectively, the three were recognized "for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis."
The plaque presentation concludes a day-long symposium, "Genes to Proteins: Decoding Genetic Information," on Nov. 12 in Masur Auditorium, Building 10 (the Clinical Center), NIH. The program is on the CSW Web site at

This symposium and the award ceremony are open to all CSW members and will be videocast. See for information on security, parking and other aspects of visiting NIH. See for information on videocasting.

The American Chemical Society established the chemical landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal historic events in chemistry and to increase awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. Other landmarks named through this prestigious program have included the invention of Bakelite, the discovery of penicillin, the development of Tide laundry detergent, and the work of historical figures, including Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, and George Washington Carver, among others. For more on the Landmark program, please visit

The American Chemical Society is a non-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 154,000 members, ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

American Chemical Society

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