February 2012

A 'mad race to the finish'

Were there any other projects going on in the Nirenberg laboratory?
Oh no. This was the only focus of the laboratory by that time. The nice thing about it was that it had a solid end-point – the code elucidated. Biology is so complex that it’s unusual to have questions with simple and clean answers. But this is one example. The genetic code is the genetic code.

What lessons can young scientists draw from these experiments?
First of all, I paraphrase Isaac Newton when I say we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in the acquisition of knowledge. The other [lesson] is the genetic code allows us to see the beautiful construct that evolution has created. The genetic code is exquisitely important and, at the same time, aesthetically pleasing.

Even though the code has been known for a long time, there’s still a lot that can be done with it that is important. Understanding diseases, all of which have genetic components, is one. It’s going to be an important source of investigation for at least the next 20 years. There’s nothing that can really beat this.

You can see copies of Leder’s NIH notebooks from 1963 to 1965 here.
The NIH’s collection of Marshall Nirenberg’s papers and biography are housed here

  1. 1. Nirenberg, M.W. and Matthaei, J.H. (1961) The dependence of cell-free protein synthesis in E. coli upon naturally occurring or synthetic polyribonucleotides. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 47, 1588 –1602.

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay (rmukhopadhyay@asbmb.org) is the senior science writer for ASBMB Today and the technical editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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This is a typically erudite and eloquent series of reflections by Phil Leder, a scientist of tremendous talent and accomplishment. However, in setting up the interview Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay might have inadvertently given some readers the impression that the number of nucleotides in the codon was unknown in 1962. The triplet nature of the genetic code had been discovered by Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner a year earlier (in the only hands-on bench science Crick ever did, and an intellectual achievement far greater than getting the double helix with Jim Watson). Phil Leder's catalytic role in the early coding race was to develop a beautiful assay system that accelerated getting most of the codons beyond that for phenylalanine, a gigantic step and one that took Nirenberg to Stockholm. Thoru Pederson UMass Medical School



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