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Preserving NIH science at the National Library of Medicine:anoxic enclosure for the Marshall Nirenberg genetic code charts

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 — Poster Session I

12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
FAES Terrace


  • HT Herro
  • KL Wright
  • RA Clary
  • HE Metger
  • C Moffatt
  • JP Rees


The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is home to NIH Nobel laureate Marshall Nirenberg’s Genetic Code Charts. The charts contain original, handwritten data from experiments that determined how protein sequence was dictated by order of precursor ribonucleic acids (RNAs). This poster will explore specific challenges to help ensure the long-term preservation of these documents as part of the NLM’s overall mission to preserve historical medical archives and make the materials, and the stories of discovery they hold, accessible to the public. Each chart contains multiple sheets of lined Addison-Wesley paper joined with pressure-sensitive tape. The data is handwritten in pencil, India ink, and ballpoint pen. Retaining the tape is important because some of the data was recorded directly on the tape carrier by Nirenberg and his technicians. The charts’ components are especially susceptible to deterioration due to environmental factors. Without intervention, this primary source documentation will eventually be lost. Thus, preservation of the charts became the focus of an ongoing NLM conservation laboratory research project. Application of NLM’s newly developed non-invasive Photoshop Assisted Spectroscopy technique revealed anoxia as ideal for preserving the ink and other deteriorating chart components. To maintain an anoxic microenvironment for each chart, NLM conservators are collaborating with staff from NIH DSEIS Mechanical Instrument Design and Fabrication section, who have prior experience creating anoxic environments for such documents as the Declaration of Independence. The frames will allow clear viewing, in-situ monitoring, long term preservation, and public access to these important pieces of scientific history.

Category: Research Support Services