Har Gobind Khorana

Molecular Biologist/Biochemist

Concord, Massachusetts

Born in 1922 in Raipur (Punjab, British India), Har Gobind Khorana is one the path-breaking scientists that transformed the studies of nucleic acids and proteins. Khorana was raised in a poor family. His father was a taxation officer and insisted his children had access to good education. In fact, his family was practically the only literate one in the village. Khorana was tutored by a village teacher under a tree and often by his father at home. He was the youngest of five children. After attending D.A.V High School in Multan, he earned a scholarship to study chemistry at Punjab University in Lahore. During these years, Khorana was mentored by Ratan Lal (a former teacher) and Mahan Singh (a respected teacher and experimentalist).

A brilliant student, the Government of India awarded him a scholarship in 1945 to study at the University of Liverpool. Khorana earned his Ph. D here under the supervision of Roger J.S. Beer, who he fondly remembers as a pillar of support to understanding and acclimating to western civilization and culture. Khorana spent his post-doctoral year at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich with Professor Vladimir Prelog. Khorana credits working with Prelog as an immeasurable catalyst for his thought process and philosophy towards science, work, and effort. Following a brief stint in India, Khorana returned to England. He stayed in Cambridge from 1950 to 1952 and working with Dr. G. W. Kenner and Professor A. R. Todd proved decisive to him. Interest in proteins and nucleic acids took root at that time.

Khorana was beginning to get noticed. In 1952, he took a job in Vancouver at the British Columbia Research Council. Here, he collaborated with Dr. Gordon M. Shrum, and thanks to Dr. Jack Campbell and Dr. Gordon M. Tener, Khorana was able to excel in research projects involving phosphate esters and nucleic acids. In 1960, Khorana moved to the Institute for Enzyme Research in Wisconsin. Some of his most ingenious work came to fruition here.  He continued working on nucleotide synthesis and cracking the genetic code. He delved deeper into his experiments in nucleic acids found in RNA, a chemical that translates the genetic information contained in DNA. Using chemical synthesis to combine chemical bases, Khorana showed that the genetic code consisted of 64 distinct three-letter words. He confirmed Marshall W. Nirenberg’s (a biochemist) findings that four different types of nucleotides are arranged on the spiral staircase of the DNA molecule. He further proved that the nucleotide code is transmitted in groups of three, called ‘codons’, to the cells. For this work, he shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg.

After 10 successful years, Khorana moved yet again but this time for good. He accepted a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and continued to experiment. He successfully constructed the first ever artificial gene in 1972 and even made this gene function in a bacteria cell. This is the whole basis for modern day genetic engineering, which has enabled incredible advancements in fields of medicine, agriculture, conservation, industrial gene manufacturing/transforming, and BioArt. Without Khorana’s remarkable work, these industries would have been several years behind or maybe even inexistent. During his later years at MIT, he experimented on the molecular mechanisms underlying the cell signaling pathways of vision in vertebrates. He primarily focused on the structure and function of rhodopsin – a light sensitive protein found in the eye. For 37 years, Khorana was the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry at MIT. To honor his career and triumphs, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Government of India and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum jointly created the Khorana Program.  This program builds a cohesive and collaborative community of scientists, industrialists, and social entrepreneurs in the United States and India.

Over his distinguished career, Khorana has been accredited with over 500 publications; won several prestigious awards like the National Medal of Science, the Lasker Award, the Padma Vibhushan, among others; and held honorary degrees from University of Liverpool, Simon Fraser University, University of Punjab, University of Delhi, Calcutta University, University of Chicago, and University of British Columbia. By all accounts, Khorana was an unassuming man. He shied from the spotlight and was most comfortable with a microscope for an eye. Khorana was not driven by success but by science. Perhaps insistence on education from an early age engrained a pursuit of knowledge deep within him. In November of 2011, Khorana breathed in his last breath. But Khorana’s name can be heard day-in day-out in labs across the world. His endeavors in fields of bioscience and biochemistry paved the way for modern sciences to reach new heights. His research and experiments are so vital today that they have been made publicly available. And that, in my mind, is a perfect snapshot of who Khorana truly was. His subtle, yet imperative importance goes unnoticed outside his professional field. But without him, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are as a race.

 

References

Gellene, Denise. “H. Gobind Khorana, 89, Nobel-Winning Scientist, Dies.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/14/us/h-gobind-khorana-1968-nobel-winner-for-rna-research-dies.html?_r=0>.

“H. Gobind Khorana – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB, n.d. Web. 25 June 2016. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1968/khorana-bio.html>.

“Har Gobind Khorana (1922-2011).” DNA from the Beginning. DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.dnaftb.org/22/bio-2.html>.

“Har Gobind Khorana.” The Famous People Website. N.p., 2017. Web. 1 Mar. 2017. <http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/har-gobind-khorana-5326.php>.

Khorana, H. Gobind. Chemical Biology: Selected Papers of H Gobind Khorana (with Introductions). N.p.: World Scientific, 2000. Google Books. Google. Web. 21 Aug. 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=UJzVCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA579&lpg=PA579&dq=Roger+J.S.+Beer+university+of+liverpool&source=bl&ots=PiZcreEzu4&sig=4PMVwp4rhgiUaESrqnt0Nb38Vck&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1vOO5ld3OAhWEWRoKHUfOBw8Q6AEIJjAD#v=onepage&q=Roger J.S. Beer university of liverpool&f=false>.

N.d. MIT News. By Emily Finn. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. <http://news.mit.edu/2011/obit-khorana-1110>.

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