Birthday: January 9, 1922
Died At Age: 89
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Born in: Punjab, India
Spouse/Ex-: Esther Elizabeth Sibler
children: Dave Roy, Emily Anne, Julia Elizabeth
Died on: November 9, 2011
place of death: Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.
discoveries/inventions: Demonstrated How Genetic Information Is Translated Into Proteins,
awards: Nobel Prize in Medicine (1968)
The man who formed a part of the team which successfully deciphered the genetic code—the mother of all codes—Har Gobind Khorana was an American biochemist of Indian origins. From the boy who started his primary education studying from a village teacher under a tree to a world renowned biochemist, his life was one long eventful journey. Even though born to poor parents, his family was very keen that their boy gets a good education. He was always a good student and it was no surprise when he won a scholarship to study chemistry at the Punjab University. He shone brilliantly in his studies and was soon off to the University of Liverpool to pursue higher education, again on a scholarship from the Government of India. His interest lay in human genetics and he began experimenting on nucleic acids found in RNA. For his discoveries in the field of DNA which carry the genetic code of all living beings, he jointly won the Nobel Prize for Medicine with Marshall W. Nirenberg and Robert W. Holley in 1968. By now he had become a citizen of the US and was continually uncovering newer information about human genetics.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born as the youngest child to Hindu parents in a village in West Punjab. He had three elder brothers and one sister. His father worked as the village “patwari” or taxation officer.
His family was poor but his father insisted on providing him a good education. Early on he went to a local school where he was educated under a tree by a village teacher; his father also taught him at home. His family was in fact the only literate one in the whole village.
He went to the D.A.V High School in Multan where he was greatly influenced by his teacher, Ratan Lal. He earned a scholarship to study chemistry at the Punjab University, Lahore.
He completed his B.Sc in 1943 and M.Sc in 1945. A brilliant student, he was awarded a scholarship by the Government of India to study at the University of Liverpool.
He went to England where he worked for a Ph.D degree at the University of Liverpool under the supervision of Roger J.S. Beer. It was the first time he had traveled outside India and this experience was his introduction to Western culture. He earned his Ph.D in 1948.
He continued his post doctoral studies in Zurich at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule with Professor Vladimir Prelog. His professor deeply influenced his thoughts and philosophy towards science.
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He received a job offer from Dr. Gordon M Shrum of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1952. He accepted even though the British Columbia Research Council did not offer many facilities for research.
Dr. Shrum was a very inspiring man and Khorana could engage in whatever research he wanted to conduct under him. Along with a group of other researchers, he began to work in the field of phosphate esters and nucleic acids.
In 1960, he accepted a position at the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin.
During the 1960s he delved deeper into his experiments in nucleic acids found in RNA, a chemical that translates the genetic information contained in DNA. RNA is composed of four chemical bases represented by the letters A, C, U, and G.
Using chemical synthesis to combine the chemical bases, Khorana deduced that the code for serine was UCU and for leucine it was CUC. He showed that the genetic code consisted of 64 distinct three-letter words.
Biochemist Marshall W. Nirenberg had independently been working on genetics and Khorana confirmed the former’s findings that four different types of nucleotides are arranged on the spiral staircase of the DNA molecule.
He proved that the nucleotide code is transmitted in groups of three—called codons—to the cells. Some codons are responsible for signaling to the cells to start or stop the manufacture of proteins.
He became the Alfred Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1970 and remained there till his retirement in 2007.
He was successful in constructing the first ever artificial gene in 1972. A few years later he made the artificial gene function in a bacteria cell. Genetic engineering has been made possible only due to the ability to synthesize DNA.
During his later years he experimented on the molecular mechanisms underlying the cell signaling pathways of vision in vertebrates. He primarily studied the structure and function of rhodospin, a light sensitive protein found in the eye.
Har Gobind Khorana was a world renowned biochemist famous for his work in the field of genetics and DNA. He was the first person to demonstrate the role of nucleotides in protein synthesis.
Awards & Achievements
In 1968 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Har Gobind Khorana, Robert W. Holley, and Marshall W. Nirenberg "for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis".
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Esther Elizabeth Sibler who was of Swiss origin in 1952. The couple had three children. Unfortunately one of their daughters died in 1979. They remained happily married till Esther’s death.
He lived a long life and died of natural causes in 2011 at the age of 89.