Har Gobind Khorana: Interpreter of Genetic Code
This India-born American scientist, who shared the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with two peers, was known as much for his pioneering feats in chemical biology as for his disarmingly modest manners.Updated: Sep 11, 2019, 11:59 IST
He was born to Krishna Devi Khorana and Ganpat Rai Khorana in a village named Raipur in pre-independence Punjab. The exact date of his birth is not known but he believed it might have been January 9, 1922. He was the youngest of five children, and received primary education under a tree in the village.
His father was a village tax official in the British government in India. He wrote in his autobiography: “Although poor, my father was dedicated to educating his children and we were practically the only literate family in the village inhabited by about 100 people.”
He attended the DAV High School in Multan, West Punjab, and then joined the Panjab University in Lahore. He received scholarships while pursuing a bachelor’s degree that he obtained in 1943 and completed his M.Sc in 1945. In the same year, he travelled to England on a government scholarship to study organic chemistry at the University of Liverpool.
He received a PhD in 1948 and began research on nucleic acids during a fellowship at the University of Cambridge under Sir Alexander Todd, after which he worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Khorana married Esther Elizabeth Sibler in 1952 whom he had met in Switzerland. They had three children - Julia Elizabeth, Emily Anne and Dave Roy. In 1952 he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, with his family after accepting a position with the British Columbia Research Council at the University of British Columbia. His work here was on nucleic acids and synthesis of important biomolecules.
He then joined the University of Wisconsin in the United States., where he completed the work that led to sharing the Nobel Prize “for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.” In 1971, he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and stayed there till he retired in 2007.
Summarising Khorana’s work, a former colleague at the University of Wisconsin said: “Khorana was an early practitioner, and perhaps a founding father, of the field of chemical biology. He brought the power of chemical synthesis to bear on deciphering the genetic code.” In 1970, he made a major contribution to genetics when he synthesised the first artificial copy of a yeast gene with his team.
Later, his research explored the molecular mechanisms underlying the cell-signaling pathways of vision in vertebrates. He also conducted studies on the function of rhodopsin, a light-sensitive protein found in retina of vertebrates. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Khorana won many other awards like the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1968) and the National Medal of Science (1987).
Khorana died on November 9, 2011, in Concord, Massachusetts, at the age of 89. His wife Esther and daughter Emily Anne had passed away earlier. In his obituary, the Washington Post said, “Dr Khorana was known for a modest manner. He tended to shun publicity, making many of his most important scientific announcements at departmental seminars and in scientific publications.
1.Referring to Khorana’s work as a professor, his daughter Julia had written: “Even while doing all this research, he was always really interested in education, in students and young people.”
2.Esther, Khorana’s wife, brought a sense of purpose to his life at a time when, after six years of absence from the country of his birth, he felt out of place everywhere and did not feel at home anywhere.
3.In 1976, six years after he had announced the synthesis of the first artificial gene, Khorana and his team created a second artificial gene, which was capable of functioning in a living cell.
4.After his retirement, students would come to visit him. He loved to talk to them about the work they were doing. He always remained very loyal to them and they were very loyal to him too.
5.While describing him, a colleague had said, “As good as he was, he was one of the most modest people I have known. What he accomplished in his life, coming from where he did, is truly incredible.”
Sources: Wikipedia, brittanica.com