Har Gobind Khorana
By DENISE GELLENE
Courtesy: New York Times.
Published: November 14, 2011
H. Gobind Khorana, who rose from a childhood of poverty in India to
become a biochemist and share in a Nobel Prize for his role in
deciphering the genetic code, died on Wednesday in Concord, Mass.
He was 89.
M.I.T., via Associated Press
H. Gobind Khorana at work in his M.I.T. laboratory in 1976.
His death was announced by the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, where Dr. Khorana was a professor emeritus.
Dr. Khorana, who received his early schooling from his
village teacher under a tree, advanced his education through
scholarships and fellowships to become an authority on the
chemical synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids, the large
molecules in cells that carry genetic information.
He received the 1968
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Robert W. Holley of
Cornell University and Marshall W. Nirenberg of the National
Institutes of Health. They worked independently of one another and
received the award for showing how genetic information is
translated into proteins, which carry out the functions of a
Their experiments looked at the nucleic acids found in
RNA, a chemical in cells that translates the genetic information
contained in DNA. RNA is composed of four chemical bases, adenine,
cytosine, uracil and guanine, which are represented by the letters
A, C, U and G. The three scientists showed that these chemical
bases combine to form three-letter “words” that represent
amino acids, the components from which proteins are constructed.
Dr. Nirenberg discovered the first word, UUU, the code for
Dr. Khorana used chemical synthesis to combine the
letters into specific defined patterns, like UCUCUCUCU, from which
he deduced that UCU encoded for serine and CUC encoded for leucine.
His work unambiguously confirmed that the genetic code consisted
of 64 distinct
He and Dr. Nirenberg discovered that some of the words told a cell
where to begin reading the code, and where to stop.
In 1972, Dr. Khorana reported a second breakthrough:
the construction of the first artificial gene, using off-the-shelf
chemicals. Four years later, he announced that he had gotten an
artificial gene to function in a bacterial cell. The ability to
synthesize DNA was central to advances in genetic engineering and
the development of the biotechnology industry. “He left an
amazing trail of technical achievement,” said Dr. Thomas P.
Sakmar, a professor at Rockefeller University and a former
Dr. Khorana’s lab also turned out leaders in academia
and industry. One former student was involved in the creation of
Applied Biosystems, which developed equipment used to decode the
human genome. Another student, Michael Smith, was a recipient of
Nobel Prize in Chemistry for devising a method of manipulating DNA.
Har Gobind Khorana was born in the village of Raipur in
the Punjab region, which is now part of Pakistan. Not certain of
the date, he said he was probably born on Jan. 9, 1922. He was the
youngest of five children of a Hindu tax clerk for the British
colonial government, who was dedicated to educating his children.
His family was “practically the only literate family in the
village inhabited by 100 people,” Dr. Khorana wrote.
His aptitude for science was evident from the start. He
received a scholarship to study chemistry at Punjab University,
although he had been too shy to attend the required admissions
interview. He received his bachelor’s degree from Punjab
University in 1943 and his master’s from there in 1945.
After earning a doctorate in organic chemistry from
Liverpool University in England in 1948, he spent a year doing
postdoctoral research at the Federal Institute of Technology in
Switzerland, where he secretly took up residence in a laboratory
until some financing came through.
He received a research fellowship at Cambridge
University, a center for the study of proteins and nucleic acids,
where James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick would discover the
double-helix structure of DNA in 1953. Dr. Khorana was drawn to
In 1952, he was recruited to the British Columbia
Research Council in Vancouver to join a group working on nucleic
acids. He developed a new method of synthesizing nucleotides, and
achieved international recognition for synthesizing coenzyme A,
which is involved in converting fats to energy.
His move to Canada coincided with his marriage to
Esther Elizabeth Sibler, whom he had met in Switzerland. “Esther
brought a consistent sense of purpose into my life at a time when,
after six years’ absence from the country of my birth, I felt
out of place everywhere and at home nowhere,” he wrote.
His wife died in 2001. Their daughter Emily Anne died
in 1979. His survivors include another daughter, Julia Elizabeth,
and a son, Dave Roy.
In 1960, Dr. Khorana moved to the Institute
for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin, where he did the work that led to his
Nobel Prize. His lab included researchers from 27 countries with
expertise in basic chemistry, molecular biology, enzymology and
biochemistry, a multidisciplinary effort unusual for its time.
Dr. Khorana became an American citizen in 1966. He
joined the M.I.T. faculty in 1970 and retired in 2007.
Dr. Khorana, an unassuming man, shied from the
spotlight and did not like talking on the phone. In the weeks
before he received the National Medal of Science, a stack of
message slips piled up on his desk with increasingly urgent
messages that the White House had called and that he should call
back, Dr. Sakmar said. With the ceremony date fast approaching, a
representative of the White House tracked down Dr. Khorana at a
scientific meeting and told him he would be receiving the award.
Dr. Khorana assured him he would attend.