Nurse's mother went from London to Norwich, Norfolk and lived with relatives while awaiting Paul's birth in order to hide illegitimacy. For the rest of their lives his maternal grandmother pretended to be his mother and his mother pretended to be his sister. He was educated at Lyon Park school in Alperton and Harrow County Grammar School. His undergraduate applications were rejected by the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Sussex and York because he did not possess the required foreign language GCE. He was offered a place at the University of Birmingham on the condition that he take French classes in his first year. He received his BSc degree in biology in 1970 from the University of Birmingham and his PhD degree in 1973 from the University of East Anglia for research on Candida utilis.
Nurse continued his postdoctoral research at the laboratory of Murdoch Mitchison at the University of Edinburgh for the next six years (1973-1979).
Beginning in 1976, Nurse identified the gene cdc2 in fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe). This gene controls the progression of the cell cycle from G1 phase to S phase and the transition from G2 phase to mitosis. In 1987, Nurse identified the homologous gene in human, Cdk1, which codes for a cyclin dependent kinase.
When cells with nuclei divide, they divide in phases called G1 (growth), S (synthesis), G2 (growth), and M (mitosis). Nurse, Hartwell and Hunt together discovered two proteins, cyclin and cyclin dependent kinase (CDK), that control the transition from one stage to another. These proteins are called checkpoints, because they check whether the cell has divided properly. If the cell doesn't divide correctly, other proteins will attempt to repair it, and if unsuccessful, they will destroy the cell. If a cell divides incorrectly and survives, it can cause cancer and other serious diseases.
Working in fission yeast, Nurse identified the gene cdc2, which controls the transition from G1 to S, when the cell grows in preparation for the duplication of DNA, and G2 to M, when the cell divides. With his postdoc Melanie Lee, Nurse also found the corresponding gene, CDK1, in humans. These genes stop and start cyclin dependent kinase (CDK) by adding or removing phosphate groups.
In 1984, Nurse joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF, now Cancer Research UK). He left in 1988 to chair the department of microbiology at the University of Oxford. He then returned to the ICRF as Director of Research in 1993, and in 1996 was named Director General of the ICRF, which became Cancer Research UK in 2002. In 2003, he became president of Rockefeller University in New York City where he continued work on the cell cycle of fission yeast. In 2011 Nurse became the first Director and Chief Executive of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, now the Francis Crick Institute.
On 30 November 2010, Sir Paul succeeded Martin Rees as President of the Royal Society. And he stepped down in 2015 when his 5-year term was completed.
Nurse has said good scientists must have passion 'to know the answer to the questions' that interest them, along with good technical ability, and a set of attitudes including mental honesty, self-criticism, open-mindedness and scepticism.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Nurse has received numerous awards and honours. He was elected a EMBO Member in 1987 and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1989 and the Founder Member of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998. In 1995 he received a Royal Medal and became a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He received the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1998. Nurse was knighted in 1999. He was awarded the French Legion d'Honneur in 2002. He was also awarded the Copley Medal in 2005. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – one of the top honours – in April 2006. He is a member of the Advisory Council for the Campaign for Science and Engineering. Nurse is the 2007 recipient of the Hope Funds Award of Excellence in Basic Research. In 2013, he was awarded the Albert Einstein World Award of Science by the World Cultural Council. In 2015, he was elected a foreign academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and won the 10th annual Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research, in Ottawa, Canada.
Nurse has received over 60 Honorary Degrees and Fellowships, including from the University of Bath in 2002, the University of Oxford in 2003, the University of Cambridge in 2003, the University of Kent in 2012, the University of Warwick (Doctor of Science) and the University of Worcester (Doctor of Science) in 2013. He was also appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (HonFREng) in 2012. In July 2016 it was announced that he will be the next Chancellor of the University of Bristol.
Nurse married to Anne Teresa (née Talbott) in 1971; they have two daughters, Sarah, who works for ITV, and Emily, a physicist based at University College London and CERN, He describes himself as a sceptical agnostic.
Nurse has been a member of the Labour Party (UK) for nearly 40 years.
As an undergraduate student at Birmingham, Nurse sold Socialist Worker, and participated in an occupation of the vice-chancellor's office. As a graduate student at East Anglia he continued to sell Socialist Worker, and was sympathetic to the International Socialist Tendency but never formally joined the movement.
Nurse has criticized potential Republican party candidates for the US presidential nomination for opposing the teaching of natural selection, stem cell research on cell lines from human embryos, and anthropogenic climate change, even partially blaming scientists for not speaking up. He was alarmed that this could happen in the U.S., a world leader in science, "the home of Benjamin Franklin, Richard Feynman and Jim Watson."
One problem, Nurse said, was "treating scientific discussion as if it were political debate," using rhetorical tricks rather than logic. Another was the state of science teaching in the schools, which does not teach citizens how to discuss science – particularly in religious schools, even in the United Kingdom. Nurse has written that "we need to emphasise why the scientific process is such a reliable generator of knowledge with its respect for evidence, for scepticism, for consistency of approach, for the constant testing of ideas." Furthermore, Nurse feels that scientific leaders "have a responsibility to expose the bunkum". They should take on politicians, and expose nonsense during elections.
In August 2014, Nurse was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September's referendum on that issue.
Nurse believes that scientists should speak out about science in public affairs and challenge politicians who support policies based on pseudoscience.