Obit Nirenberg
Bob Schutz  /  AP
Dr. Marshall Nirenberg, whose work untangling fundamental genetic processes earned him a Nobel Prize has died.
updated 1/21/2010 6:35:51 PM ET 2010-01-21T23:35:51

Marshall Nirenberg, a scientist whose groundbreaking work untangling fundamental genetic processes earned him a Nobel Prize, has died. He was 82.

Nirenberg died of cancer Jan. 15 in Manhattan, said his sister, Joan Geiger.

He was "one of science's great titans," said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in a statement on its Web site.

Nirenberg was working at the NIH when he conducted an experiment with a colleague in 1961. The experiment showed them the way genetic information in DNA is translated into proteins in cells.

Nirenberg, then only in his mid-30s, took his discovery to a conference in Moscow and spoke about it to a small group of scientists. One of them asked him to repeat his talk in front of a larger group, thus taking it out to the larger scientific world.

He continued his work, meeting the challenge of fully identifying the pieces involved in that genetic translating process. For his efforts, he earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968, sharing the award with two other scientists.

Nirenberg was aware of the broader societal impact of his work, writing in "Science" magazine that the general public needed to become aware of and understand scientific advances in order to make the best decisions on how to use them.

"When man becomes capable of instructing his own cells, he must refrain from doing so until he has sufficient wisdom to use this knowledge for the benefit of mankind," Nirenberg wrote.

Nirenberg was born in New York City in 1927. His family moved to Florida before he was a teen, and he quickly took to the environment, eager to explore the wildlife, Geiger said.

"He was very, very smart," Geiger told The Associated Press. "His curiosity was unbounded."

That curiosity stayed with him throughout his life, she said.

Nirenberg is also survived by his wife, Myrna Weissman.

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