Zhang named first Nirenberg Collegiate Professor

Sep 26, 2013


Marshall W. Nirenberg and Jianzhi Zhang

Professor Jianzhi Zhang has been named the Marshall W. Nirenberg Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

The Marshall W. Nirenberg Collegiate Professorship in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was established in August 2013 by the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The professorship recognizes a distinguished faculty member in honor of the Nobel Prize winning scientist whose discoveries about the genetic code were a turning point in the history of biology. Zhang’s appointment began Sept. 1, 2013 for five years with the possibility of renewal. Nirenberg received his doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1957.

Zhang completed his doctorate at Pennsylvania State University in 1998. Following a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, Zhang was appointed assistant professor at U-M in 2001 and was promoted through the ranks to professor in 2009.

Zhang’s research focuses on the evolutionary origins of novel functions for genes and on the mechanism of gene evolution at the scale of entire genomes. According to the U-M Regents Communication regarding this appointment, Zhang is a widely recognized leader by virtue of his integration of statistical and laboratory techniques. He operates at the highest level of scholarship, combining creativity and vigor, productivity, strong funding, and a willingness to take risks. He has published an astonishing 139 papers since completing his Ph.D. and all of them are in top-ranked general scientific journals or the most prestigious journals in genetics and evolution. These works are highly cited by his peers and in the public media, reflecting his intellectual leadership.

Zhang has been successful in his teaching of a variety of courses. He is outstanding in the upper division teaching and his graduate seminar in molecular evolution is quite popular. He has taken on the capstone seminar, required of all EEB majors. An excellent research mentor, Zhang works closely with his students to raise them to higher levels of achievement. As a consequence, his students have an extraordinary publication rate—typically four to seven publications by the time they defend their dissertations. Eight of his Ph.D. students have completed their dissertations and all have gone on to excellent postdoctoral and then permanent positions. He is currently mentoring four Ph.D. students.

Zhang is an outstanding colleague performing valuable service in the department. He is an active member of his larger research community. He performs numerous ad hoc reviews for journals and granting agencies, and frequently gives his students opportunities to review manuscripts for journals, providing mentoring in this important academic role.

Nirenberg (1927-2010) was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1948 he received his bachelor’s degree, and in 1952, a master's degree in zoology from the University of Florida at Gainesville. His dissertation for the master's thesis was an ecological and taxonomic study of caddisflies (Trichoptera). As previously mentioned, he received his doctorate in biochemistry from University of Michigan in 1957. He then began his career as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Nirenberg was working on glucose transport and glycogen metabolism, but he changed to protein synthesis, considering it to be one of the most exciting areas in biochemistry. In a critical experiment in 1961, Nirenberg identified the particular codons—sequences of three chemical units of DNA—that specify each of the 20 amino acid units of which protein molecules are constructed. His work soon showed how short sequences of genetic material were translated into the building blocks for proteins that all living things are made of.  

Announced at a Moscow meeting of the International Congress of Biochemistry in 1961, Nirenberg’s research was soon hailed around the world. With help from other NIH researchers in a fast-paced competition called the “coding race,” Nirenberg and his team produced a translation table in 1965 that has been called a Rosetta stone for genetics. The Nobel committee awarded Nirenberg the 1968 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine which he shared with two other researchers who had worked on the problem. In solving the genetic code, Nirenberg established the rules by which the genetic information in DNA is translated into proteins, the working parts of living cells. The code lies at the basis of life, and understanding it was truly a turning point in the history of biology.