Interviewee: Marshall Nirenberg.
Marshall Nirenberg talks about origin of the RNA code.
The code is as old as, almost as old as, the first forms of life that originated. Now there's one problem that has never been answered in the code, that still is unanswered that maybe somebody will, who's listening to this will be able to solve, and that is how did the code originate. Why is there a reason why U, U, U codes for poly... for phenylalanine, could it be a different codon, is there a physical reason for the code? One thing I noticed early on was that chemically similar amino acids have chemically similar codons and this is very, very evident and one consequence of this is that a mutation that changes a single base, for example, the effects of this mutation and this amino acid replacement will be minimized if you replace one amino acid by a chemically similar amino acid. And I pointed this out, but nobody really has yet explained the, this underlying order that exists in the code. Did the code evolve from a series of precursor codes? Nobody really knows. Or was it a, a rare, one rare event that occurred, and then was maintained throughout evolution? So I would say the code, you know, is hundreds of millions of years, maybe billions of years old and the code originated as life, as life originated.
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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.
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.