Field of Science

Marshall Nirenberg (1927-2010)

In the latest issue of Cell, Edward Scolnick offers a moving and insightful tribute to his former mentor, Marshall Nirenberg. Nirenberg won the Nobel Prize for Medicine along with Har Gobind Khorana and Robert Holley for one of the most important scientific discoveries, the cracking of the genetic code. Scolnick pinpoints the essential nature of the man and his work.

The world of science knows the substance of his work: He opened up the mystery of the genetic code with the poly-U-polyphenylalanine experiment, then with the triplet binding assay with Phil Leder, and finally with the triplet termination assay with Tom Caskey. From UUU to all 64 triplets: the “periodic table” for molecular biology. But how many have read the poly-U paper—I mean, really read it? Marshall’s approach to science comes through, loud and clear. Every possible control is tested. Every method is described so that anyone else can reproduce it. Every piece of data, even imperfect data, is included in the tables and figures. The incorporation of phenylalanine into the product is more than a thousand-fold over background without the poly-U template, and the incorporation of this amino acid is selective for this homopolymer. How many of us would take the care to characterize the actual product to be sure it had the characteristics of polyphenylalanine? Marshall believed deeply in being meticulous and in being certain that one’s data were true, that the results were due to the variables one had manipulated and were not caused by some vagary that had not been thought of or controlled for. He believed that the methods in one’s paper should be so clearly described that any investigator trying to reproduce the results could do so on the very first attempt. Supplementary sections could never be a part of a Nirenberg paper...
Scolnick also ends with an admonition and a wise message that every member of the government should read.

Members of Congress—guardians of taxpayer dollars and decision-makers for NIH funding—often ask themselves whether the funding for science provided to NIH really matters to the health of the nation. We should tell them to think for a moment about the impact of the cracking of the genetic code. If it were not for Marshall Nirenberg’s work, there would be no recombinant DNA technology, which changed life science and medicine. The sequence of the human genome and the era of modern genomics could not have come into being. Protein therapeutics for cancer and autoimmune diseases, drugs for HIV, statins for atherosclerosis, and modern vaccines all ultimately owe their origin to the knowledge of the code. The genetic code is the periodic table for biological science...How can we honor Marshall Nirenberg’s memory? We can remember all the things he stood for: complete truth in science, meticulous attention to detail, passionate love for discovery, thorough training of students, deep values about how science should be carried out. Marshall will never be dead, because what he stood for in science is timeless—bridging generations of scientists, and bridging millennia
How easy is it to forget that the greatest applied scientific breakthroughs and the greatest fundamental discoveries in science have mainly come out of government-funded basic research? Those who forget this will only condemn their own grandchildren to paucity of knowledge and bereave them of that magical horizon of understanding that science reveals. It is up to all of us to ensure that Nirenberg and others live on through a commitment to such basic scientific research.

1 comment:

  1. The first excerpt strikes me as a good lesson for scientists--sloppy science might earn you headlines today, but meticulous science will make you (your work) immortal.

    As for the value of government funded research, all I can say is one need only pay attention to science news cylcle for a short time to discover for themselves the invaluable returns our meager investment in the sciences return to us on a daily basis.


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