The RNA code for phenylalanine, Marshall Nirenberg
Interviewee: Marshall Nirenberg.
Marshall Nirenberg talks about decoding the first codon – UUU.
(DNAi Location: Code > Reading the code > Players > Marshall Nirenberg > Breaking the code)
We were looking for a synthetic polynucleotide, an RNA that contained only one kind of base instead of the four bases. We were looking to see if it would stimulate the synthesis of protein that contained only one kind of amino acid, that's what we found. So we found that a series of U's in RNA corresponded to, it was the code word for phenylalanine in protein. We deciphered the first, I mean we'd broken the code, we'd deciphered the first codon, the first word that, in nucleic acid language that corresponds to an amino acid in protein. It was fantastically exciting and it opened the whole door to deciphering the rest of the code because we could make randomly ordered polynucleotides, RNAs with different bases, different combinations of bases and different proportions.
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Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei used poly-U mRNA in a cell-free system to make a polyphenylalanine protein chain. This showed that UUU must be the code that specifies the amino acid phenylalanine.
Marshall Nirenberg, Har Gobind Khorana, and Robert Holley shared the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. Nirenberg and Khorana cracked the genetic code. Holley sequenced and deduced the structure of the first tRNA molecule.