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Har Gobind Khorana — Nobel winner who gave genetic engineering its biggest breakthrough

From his humble beginnings in a village in Punjab, Khorana became one of the biggest names in the world’s scientific community.

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New Delhi: Indian academics have always made the country proud on a global scale with their groundbreaking work. This year was made even more special when Abhijit Banerjee was one of the three people to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. The win kicked off a discussion about the rarity of an Indian winning a Nobel Prize in any field, which led to a renewed interest in the work and life of physicist Har Gobind Khorana, who has been rediscovered by a whole new generation. 

ThePrint remembers the physicist and his extraordinary work in genetics, which led to the decoding of the genetic code and the construction of the first synthetic gene. 

Early life

Born in Raipur, Punjab, on 9 January, 1922, Khorana belonged to the only literate family in his village. His father, Ganpat Rai Khorana, was a clerk in the British administration and stressed on the importance of educating all five of his children, of whom Khorana was the youngest. After his schooling, he did his masters in science from Punjab University in Lahore. 

In 1945, luck knocked on his door in the form of the Government of India Fellowship, which allowed him to go to England for a PhD in organic chemistry. One of his postdoctoral years (1948-49) was spent in Zurich, Germany, where he worked at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule with professor Vladimir Prolog, whose work ethic Khorana greatly admired and took inspiration from. 

It was during a fellowship at the University of Cambridge in 1951 that his interest in genetics was piqued and he started researching nucleic acids under Sir Alexander Todd. Khorana then went on to hold a fellowship and teach at Switzerland’s Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Here, He met Esther Elizabeth Sibler and married her in 1952. They had three children, Julia Elizabeth, Emily Anne, and Dave Roy. His family was said to be his main source of strength, having moved around so much that he did not feel like he belonged anywhere.

Khorana’s research on genetics

In 1952, Khorana moved to Canada to work at the prestigious University of British Columbia and work truly started taking shape thanks to the university’s support. While they could not provide him with great funds, they did allow him the freedom to do what he liked and Khorana started research programmes in phosphate esters and nucleic acids. In 1960, Khorana moved to Wisconsin Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin and finally became a naturalised citizen of the United States and settled there with his family and work. 

Khorana completed his most notable piece of work, the decoding of the gene and synthesis of proteins, here. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is the part of the DNA strand that dictates the formation of proteins, which take the form of tissue and muscle and the basic functions they perform. Nucleotides, Khorana’s main area of expertise, are subunits of DNA and RNA and are essential parts of the DNA strand that decide which proteins make up which cells and tissue. Khorana worked alongside two other eminent scientists, Robert W. Holley of Cornell University and Marshall W. Nirenberg of the National Institutes of Health, to crack this code. 

According to The New York Times, the trio’s experiments looked at how nucleic acids translated the genetic code from DNA. They showed that the four chemical bases that make up RNA combined to form three-letter ‘words’ that represent amino acids, which is what proteins are made of. Khorana used protein synthesis to prove that the genetic code consists of 64 different three-letter words, which told the cell where to begin reading the code and where to stop. For this, Khorana, Nirenberg and Marshall received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968. 

World’s first synthetic gene

Four years later, in 1972, Khorana had a second breakthrough — he constructed the world’s first synthetic gene. His contributions paved the way for further advancements in the field of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Khorana’s work is used as the basis of research in the field of genetics even today. 

In 1970, Khorana became the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he worked until his retirement in 2007. His illustrious career left a legacy of scientific curiosity and helped hundreds of students and scientists achieve their breakthroughs. He passed away on 9 November 2011, in Massachusetts but his penchant for learning lived on.

Curiosity, his daughter Elizabeth once said in an interview, was something he nurtured till his last days. “My father was a very curious person, curious about everything around him — students, colleagues, friends, nature and whatnot — and that curiosity remained with him till the very end.” 

Also read: Homi Bhabha and how World War II was responsible for creating India’s nuclear future


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  1. Hats off to The Print for remembering this forgotten hero. This reminds to me the sad state of administration in India. Nobody ever invited him to work in India. It is said that Mr. Nehru used to make personal efforts to bring talented people to work in India, but after him science has undergone steady decline over here, so much so that our neighbor has many times GDP than us.

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