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Marshall Nirenberg dies at 82; biochemist won Nobel for deciphering genetic code

An outsider in the science world, he and a partner made the breakthrough using a method rejected by a team of elite researchers working on the same problem.

January 29, 2010|By Thomas H. Maugh II

Fame came calling and Nirenberg was offered positions at other institutions around the world. He decided to stay at NIH, he said, because the steady funding freed him from the task of preparing grant applications and the lack of teaching left him more time for research. But he did teach the students who came through his laboratory, and two of them went on to win Nobels themselves.

He later shifted to neurobiology, making a variety of contributions, including the discovery of a fruit fly gene that is essential for heart development.

Marshall Warren Nirenberg was born April 10, 1927, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was a shirt manufacturer, but when Marshall developed rheumatic fever at the age of 8, the family moved to the more welcoming climate of Orlando, Fla., where the father went into the confectionary business. Nirenberg reveled in the wildlife-filled swamps, becoming an expert bird-watcher and entomologist.

He attended the University of Florida, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1948 and a master's in biology four years later. A doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Michigan in 1957 was followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at NIH.

Nirenberg's first wife, Perola Zaltzman Nirenberg, died in 2001. He is survived by his second wife, Myrna Weissman; his sister, Joan N. Geiger of Dallas; four stepchildren and seven grandchildren.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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