In the summer of 2006 Marshall W. Nirenberg chanced on a just published biography of a prominent molecular biologist. It was entitled Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code.

“That’s awful!” he thought. “It’s wrong—it’s really and truly wrong!”

Nirenberg himself, along with two other scientists, had received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 “for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis,” and neither of his co-winners happened to be named Crick. (They were in fact Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana.)

The incident was testimony to the inconstancy of fame. And it was by no means an isolated example, as Nirenberg knew from the long and bitter experience of seeing similar misattributions elsewhere. The breaking of the genetic code was one of the most important advances in molecular biology, secondary only to the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953 by Crick and James D. Watson. But whereas they are household names, Marshall Nirenberg certainly is not.

Nirenberg, 80, is now a laboratory chief at the National Institutes of Health, where he has spent his entire career. His otherwise standard-issue science office is distinguished by framed copies of his lab notebooks tabulating the results of his genetic code work. Many of the original documents and some of the instruments he used in this research are on display on the first floor of the NIH Clinical Center, in the exhibit “Breaking the Genetic Code.”

“People had hypothesized that there was a genetic code in the 1950s,” Nirenberg says. “But nobody knew how proteins were synthesized. Nobody knew how it was done.”

When Nirenberg arrived at the NIH in 1957 as a biochemistry postdoc, cracking the genetic code was not the first item on his agenda. Ambitious as he was, deciphering the language of life seemed too daunting a project—at least initially.

Consider the problem. The information inside a DNA molecule is encoded by the nucleotide bases adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine (A, T, G and C). The full sequence of those four nucleotides, which run in nearly endless combinations up and down the strands, constitutes a molecular message for building an organism. Each three-letter sequence of nucleotides (or codon) stands for a specific amino acid. GCA, for example, codes for alanine, one of the 20 different amino acids found in animal organisms. Cellular machinery strings together the amino acids to form the proteins that make up a living being. The task of deciphering the genetic code, then, was reduced to the problem of finding out which exact three-letter sequences stood for which precise amino acid.

In 1955 Crick himself tried to solve the problem, not by experimenting but essentially by thinking, just as a cryptanalyst might try to crack a coded message. He got nowhere and abandoned the attempt. (People today may attribute the discovery of the code to Crick because of his theoretical efforts and because in 1966, based on the experiments of others, he drew up one of the first charts of the complete code.)

Nirenberg started work on the code around 1960, but he had to confront a preliminary problem first. “My question was, Is DNA read directly to protein?” DNA, he knew, resided in the cell nucleus, whereas protein synthesis took place in the cytoplasm. Therefore, either DNA itself exited the nucleus, or some intermediate molecule did—what we now know as messenger RNA. “So the question I was asking was, Does messenger RNA exist? And I thought if I made a cell-free protein-synthesizing system from E. coli and added DNA to it, or RNA, then I would see if they stimulated protein synthesis.”

The so-called cell-free system is one of the stranger tools of experimental biology. Also known as cell sap, it is a mass of cells denuded of their membranes, the result being a quantity of free cytoplasm in which the original cellular organelles and other structures remain largely intact and functional. In late 1960 Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei, who had joined Nirenberg’s lab, found that putting RNA into the cell-free system caused it to synthesize proteins but that adding DNA did not.

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RNA, then, was the molecule that directed protein production. At some point Nirenberg hypothesized that if he could introduce a specific, known RNA triplet into a cell-free system, and if the system responded by synthesizing a distinct amino acid, then he would have a key to unlocking the genetic code. Others at the NIH were making strings of synthetic nucleotides, long-chain molecules that repeated the same base: AAAAA ... (also known as poly-A); TTTTT ... (poly-T); and so on.

Nirenberg got hold of a quantity of poly-U (in RNA, uracil replaces DNA’s thymine), and he wrote up an experimental protocol for Matthaei to carry out. And so it happened that late one night in May 1961, Matthaei added a quantity of poly-U into a cell-free system.

It was a historic moment: the cell sap reacted by churning out the amino acid phenylalanine. One codon had been deciphered, and the triplet UUU became the first word in the chemical dictionary of life.

 “That was really staggering,” Nirenberg recalls today.

He announced the result in August 1961 at a biochemical congress in Moscow. Soon afterward Nirenberg had competition: Nobelist Severo Ochoa of the New York University School of Medicine set up his own lab and started deciphering the code, too. Ochoa continued until 1964, when at a meeting of the American Chemical Society both he and Nirenberg spoke. At that point, each scientist had discovered the base compositions, but not the sequences, of many of the codons. Ochoa spoke first and reported the compositions of some of them. “I was the next speaker,” Nirenberg remembers. “I described a simple assay that could be used to determine the nucleotide sequences of RNA codons. Ochoa then stopped working on the genetic code.”

By 1966, with the aid of key contributions from Holley and Khorana, Nirenberg had identified both the compositions and base sequences of all the genetic code’s 64 trinucleotides. For this achievement, he shared the Nobel Prize in 1968; however, he somehow became the Forgotten Father of the Genetic Code.

Why? “Personality, I guess,” Nirenberg says. “I’m shy, retiring. I like to work, and I’ve never gone out of my way to try to publicize myself. Crick told me I was stupid because I never was after the limelight.” In addition, Watson and Crick’s discovery yielded a simple, visually stunning image: a gleaming molecular spiral staircase. The genetic code, in contrast, was a mazeworks of forbidding chemical names, codons and complex molecular functions—a publicist’s nightmare.

In Nirenberg’s own mind, anyway, he had better things to do than burnish his reputation. He turned his talents to the brain. In particular, he wanted to discover how axons and dendrites found one another during embryonic development and how they wired up correctly.

To find out, he and his colleagues established thousands of nerve cell lines, including cells that were hybrids of muscle and nerve. He found that by electrically stimulating a nerve cell, he could record a response across a synapse with striated muscle cells—the cell-level equivalent of Luigi Galvani’s getting frog muscles to move in the 18th century. Experiments on fruit flies revealed the existence of four new genes, NK-1 through NK-4, that regulate the differentiation of embryonic nerve cells called neuroblasts.

Nirenberg has racked up 71 publications in neurobiology over the past 20 years. But for all that productivity, those studies will likely never eclipse his cracking of the language of A, T, G and C. That he is not well known for it does not seem to faze him. “Deciphering the genetic code was fantastic fun,” he says. “I mean, it was really thrilling.” Fame may be fleeting, but the genetic code will endure for as long as there is life.