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Nobel laureate Har Gobind Khorana dies

Har Gobind Khorana, a Nobel laureate most Indians grow up claiming as their own, died on Wednesday in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 89. Yashwant Raj reports.

world Updated: Nov 12, 2011 02:20 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times

Har Gobind Khorana, a Nobel laureate most Indians grow up claiming as their own, died on Wednesday in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 89.

He dies of natural causes, said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was professor emeritus biology and chemistry. He joined MIT in 1970.

Two years before, Khorana won the Nobel, in 1968, sharing it with two others, for unraveling the nucleotide sequence of RNA and deciphering the genetic code. He was then with the University of Wisconsin.

Born in 1922 in a part of Punjab that went to Pakistan after partition, Khorana was a US citizen, having lived outside the subcontinent most of his life.

But that didn't stop Indians from counting him among the handful of Indians - Indian Indians, of Indian descent or Indians living abroad - to have won the Nobel.

Rabindranath Tagore was the first to win it from India. CV Raman and Amartya Sen were the other two Indian Indians. Mother Teresa was a foreign born Indian. Then there were Subramnayan Chandrashekhar, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan - both naturalized US citizens - and V S Naipaul, of Indian descent.

Khorana's Nobel was somehow the most cherished for Indians, perhaps because it was the first for someone from India after Independence.

He left the subcontinent around Independence, first to the UK, then Switzerland - where he met and married Esther Elizabeth Sibler, and then to Canada and the US.

"Gobind was a brilliant, path-breaking scientist, a wise and considerate colleague, and a dear friend to many of us at MIT," said Chris Kaiser, head of the Department of Biology, in an email announcing the news to his department.

"Khorana was among the pioneers of the now-familiar series of three-nucleotide codons that signal to the cell which amino acids to use in building proteins - for example, uracil-cytosine-uracil, or UCU, codes for the amino acid serine, while CUC codes for leucine," said MIT News.

Shortly after arriving at the Institute, Khorana - along with colleagues - announced the synthesis of two different genes crucial to protein building.

And in a major breakthrough in 1976, they completed the synthesis of the first fully functional manmade gene in a living cell, said MIT News.

First Published: Nov 11, 2011 23:02 IST