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J. Heinrich Matthaei (born 4 May 1929) is a German biochemist. He is best known for his unique contribution to solving the genetic code on 15 May 1961. Whilst a post-doctoral visitor in the laboratory of Marshall Warren Nirenberg at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, he discovered that a synthetic RNA polynucleotide, composed of a repeating uridylic acid residue, coded for a polypeptide chain encoding just one kind of amino acid, phenylalanine. In scientific terms, he discovered that polyU codes for polyphenylalanine and hence the coding unit for this amino acid is composed of a series of Us or, as we now know the genetic code is read in triplets, the codon for phenylalanine is UUU. This single experiment opened the way to the solution of the genetic code. It was for this and later work on the genetic code for which Nirenberg shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. In addition, Matthaei and his co-wokers in the following years published a multitude of results concerning the early understanding of the form and function of the genetic code.

J. Heinrich Matthaei
Nierenberg matthaei.jpg
J. Heinrich Matthaei (left) and Marshall Nirenberg
Born (1929-05-04) 4 May 1929 (age 90)
Alma materRheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
Known forcontribution to solving the genetic code
Scientific career
Fieldsbiological chemistry
  • Max-Planck-Institut für experimentelle Medizin
  • National Institutes of Health

Why Matthaei, who personally deciphered the genetic code, was excluded from this scientific prize is one of the Nobel Prize controversies. Later, Matthaei was a member of the Max Planck Society in Göttingen.


  • Matthaei JH, Nirenberg MW (1961). "Characteristics and stabilization of DNA ase-sensitive protein synthesis in E. coli extracts". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 47 (10): 1580–1588. doi:10.1073/pnas.47.10.1580. PMC 223177. PMID 14471391.
  • Nirenberg MW, Matthaei JH (1961). "The dependence of cell-free protein synthesis in E. coli upon naturally occurring or synthetic polyribonucleotides". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 47 (10): 1588–1602. doi:10.1073/pnas.47.10.1588. PMC 223178. PMID 14479932.
  • Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. Experimentalsysteme - Eine Geschichte der Proteinsynthese im Reagenzglas. Wallstein. ISBN 3-89244-454-4.

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