Har Gobind Khorana: The Man Who Cracked the Genetic Code

Who was Har Gobind Khorana?

Har Gobind Khorana was a legendary Indian biochemist (acquired American citizenship later). Har Gobind Khorana is one of the few people of Indian origin to ever win the Nobel Prize. He won the 1968 Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology along with his colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Marshall W. Nirenberg and Robert W. Holley. Har Gobind Khorana and his fellow Nobel laureates conducted ground breaking research which displayed the order of nucleotides within nucleic acid molecules. These nucleotides perform the function of cellular protein synthesis as well as carry the genetic code for each cell. Har Gobind Khorana and fellow laureate Marshall Nirenberg were also awarded with Columbia University’s prestigious Gross Horwitz Prize in the same year as their Nobel prize. Har Gobind Khorana was born before India’s independence and partition and went on to work as faculty at three prestigious universities in North America. Har Gobind Khorana also became a naturalized citizen of the United States States of America in 1966. For his achievements and contributions in the field of science as an American, Har Gobind Khorana was bestowed with the prestigious National Medal of Science in 1987. One of his favourite quotes was Otto Loewi’s “we must be modest except in our aims”.

Where was Har Gobind Khorana born?

Har Gobind Khorana was born on January 9th, 1922 in Raipur (not to be confused with Raipur in modern day India’s Chhattisgarh), Multan, Punjab to the family of Ganpat Rai Khorana and Krishna Devi Khorana. Har Gobind Khorana was born before India’s independence and partition and during that time, modern day India and Pakistan were a part of British India and weren’t divided on religious lines. Har Gobind Khorana was the youngest of the family’s five children. Even though Har Gobind Khorana went on to become one of the most prominent scientists in his field, his educational beginnings were actually quite humble. For the first four years, Har Gobind Khorana was taught under a tree, which was basically the only ‘school’ in the village. Har Gobind Khorana’s father, who worked as a patwari or a village agricultural taxation clerk for the Government was the driving force behind providing education to his children. Har Gobind Khorana spoke about his father’s education efforts: “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.”

Where did Har Gobind Khorana study?

After his initial education, Har Gobind Khurana enrolled in the D.A.V. High School (known back then as the Muslim High School), Multan. After finishing his schooling, Har Gobind Khorana received a scholarship to study at the Punjab University situated in Lahore. Har Gobind Khorana completed his Bachelor of Science degree in 1943 and went on to complete his Master of Science degree in 1945.

After completing his Master’s degree, Har Gobind Khorana was offered a Government of India fellowship for studying organic chemistry at the University of Liverpool. After three years of research work at the university, Har Gobind Khorana received his Ph.D in the year 1948. His doctoral work was overseen and advised by Roger J.S. Beer. Har Gobind Khorana then moved to Switzerland to pursue his postdoctoral studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). Har Gobind Khorana pursued his postdoctoral studies with Professor Vladimir Prelog (who would go on to win 1975’s Nobel Prize in chemistry). Such was Har Gobind Khorana’s passion in the field that he worked at an unpaid position for a year in alkaloid chemistry.

For a small amount of time in 1949, Har Gobind Khorana returned to his home state of Punjab but was unable to find a job there. As a result, Har Gobind Khorana sought a fellowship, received it and returned to England and worked with George Wallace Kenner and Alexander R. Todd on the subject of peptides and nucleotides. During his fellowship between 1950 and 1952, Har Gobind Khorana stayed in Cambridge.

After he was offered a position with University of British Columbia’s British Columbia Research Council, Har Gobind Khorana moved with his family to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Even though the facilities at the university were somewhat limited, Har Gobind Khorana was extremely excited at the prospect of starting his own lab. Har Gobind Khorana mainly worked on ‘nucleic acids and synthesis of many important biomolecules’ during his tenure with the University of British Columbia.

In the year 1960, after accepting the position of co-director of the Institute of Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Har Gobind Khorana moved to the United States of America. Har Gobind Khorana went on to acquire the position of professor of biochemistry in the year 1962. According to the American Chemical Society, during his tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Har Gobind Khorana “helped decipher the mechanisms by which RNA codes for the synthesis of proteins” and “began to work on synthesizing functional genes.” Har Gobind Khorana also completed his Nobel Prize winning research during his tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Why did Har Gobind Khorana get the Nobel Prize?

According to the Nobel Prize website, Har Gobind Khorana, Marshall W. Niremberg and Robert W. Holley were awarded the Nobel Prize “for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis”. The website went on to specify Har Gobind Khorana’s role in the research process. According to the website: “he [Khorana] made important contributions to this field by building different RNA chains with the help of enzymes. Using these enzymes, he was able to produce proteins. The amino acid sequences of these proteins then solved the rest of the puzzle.”

When did Har Gobind Khorana get the Nobel Prize?

Har Gobind Khorana was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of medicine/physiology in the year 1968. 10 years later, Har Gobind Khorana was also elected as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS).

Who did Har Gobind Khorana marry?

Har Gobind Khorana met the love of his life Esther Elizabeth Sibler in Switzerland and married her in the year 1952. The couple went on to have three children, two daughters Julia Elizabeth and Emily Anne, and a son Dave Roy. The family lived in the United States of America.

How did Har Gobind Khorana die?

After a long and illustrious career as a biochemist, Har Gobind Khurana breathed his last on November 9th, 2011 at the age of 89. He passed away in Concord, Massachusetts, United States of America. He was survived by his daughter, Julia Elizabeth and son, Dave Roy. His wife, Esther Elizabeth Sibler and other daughter, Emily Anne had passed away earlier. His daughter Julia wrote about Har Gobind Khorana’s stellar work as a professor: “Even while doing all this research, he was always really interested in education, in students and young people.”

One of America’s leading newspapers, The Washington Post also published an obituary post about Har Gobind Khorana. Here’s a small excerpt from it: “Dr. Khorana was known for a modest, ingratiating manner. He tended to shun publicity, making many of his most important scientific announcements at departmental seminars and in scientific publications”.

On the occasion of what would’ve been Har Gobind Khorana’s 96th birthday, Google released a Google Doodle to celebrate his achievements and contributions in the field of medicine on January 9th, 2018. Here’s what Google said in its description of the doodle:

“Today’s Doodle celebrates Har Gobind Khorana, an Indian-American biochemist whose passion for science started under a tree in the small village of Raipur, India, and grew into Nobel Prize-winning research on nucleotides and genes.

Dr. Khorana was born in 1922 as the youngest of five children. His father instilled the importance of learning by helping his children to read and write, which wasn’t common for villagers at the time. Scholarships helped propel the budding scientist through his scholastic journey, obtaining his doctorate in organic chemistry in 1948.

Dr. Khorana conducted research at universities in England, Switzerland, and Canada, and it was at the University of Wisconsin that he and two fellow researchers received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968. Together, they discovered that the order of nucleotides in our DNA determines which amino acids are built. These amino acids form proteins, which carry out essential cell functions.

His accomplishments didn’t stop there. Fewer than five years later, Dr. Khorana made a second scientific breakthrough when he constructed the first synthetic gene. He received a host of awards during his lifetime, including the National Medal of Science.

Bangalore-based illustrator Rohan Dahotre drew today’s Doodle, which celebrates Dr. Khorana’s pioneering work in understanding our DNA.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Khorana!”

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