Remembering Nobel Laureate Khorana

By Frank F. Islam

Har Gobind Khorana was an Indian American who shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine and was awarded the National Medal of Science in the United States (US). His 100th birth anniversary passed earlier this month without any major commemorative events, either in the US or in India.

The failure to recognize the contributions of Khorana this year, at a time when tens of millions of people are benefiting from his landmark research on a daily basis, is unfortunate. The origin of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, one of modern medical science’s best tools in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, traces its beginnings to Khorana’s foundational research on the ribonucleic acid (RNA) gene.

At the National Medal of Science citation, presented to Khorana in 1987, President Ronald Reagan pointed out that he “significantly contributed to our understanding of gene structure, membrane function, and vision” and “the work stimulated by his research” had “had a major impact on the biological and chemical sciences.”

Khorana’s journey from Raipur, a small village in Multan, now in Pakistan, to being a Nobel laureate and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is awe-inspiring.

At the age of 23, Khorana received a government fellowship to do a Ph.D. at the University of Liverpool in England. He followed it with a brief postdoctoral program in Zurich, Switzerland.

Khorana traveled back to India in 1949 with the intention of starting cutting-edge genetic research in India. Later, he returned to England, to the University of Cambridge, to work in the lab of the celebrated Scottish biochemist, Alexander R. Todd. Working with Todd, who won the Nobel Prize in 1957, Khorana expanded the frontiers of his research to biochemistry, especially nucleotides, which form the RNA and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Khorana acknowledged that it was his “good fortune to be associated with” the legendary scientist’s “laboratory before the start of our own work in the nucleotide field.”

In 1952, Khorana relocated to Vancouver, Canada, to start his own lab, supported by the British Columbia Research Council. During that period, he started his work on phosphate esters and nucleic acids, the research that eventually led to the Nobel.

Eight years later, Khorana came to the US, accepting a faculty and research position at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Enzyme Research. It was there that he cracked the genetic code, discovering that the genetic code of a DNA predisposes to protein synthesis, which decides the way a cell functions. He won the Nobel, along with colleagues and fellow Nobel laureates Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg, for that feat.

Khorana continued his path-breaking research to become the first person to synthesize a gene two years later. Then in 1970, he joined MIT as a professor of biology and chemistry. Khorana’s presence at MIT was felt immediately as he helped synthesize two different genes. In the mid-1970s, he and his team synthesized a manmade gene in a living cell.

He passed away on November 9, 2011, in Massachusetts, at the age of 89.

One of the best summations of Khorana’s life and work was made by his former MIT colleague and head of MIT’s Department of Biology, Chris Kaiser. In 2018, Kaiser wrote, “Like the great explorers Frances Drake and Ernest Shackleton, who were my heroes growing up, Khorana had the vision and leadership to convince a team to follow him to an unknown place, and he had the supreme confidence that he would know what to do once he got there.”

That is why we remember Har Gobind Khorana in 2022 and he should be remembered for centuries to come. Journey on!

(Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, civic leader, and thought leader with a special commitment to civic, educational, and artistic causes.)

(Courtesy: HT)

Images courtesy of HT and .

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