Ever since the existence of earth,and the creation of various animals, birds and humans in the universe, one of the most fundamental questions, that has been asked. How is it that we are so similar to our parents? Be it skin color, or facial features or physical build, how is it that we inherit these characteristics from our parents. A question that has prompted scientists of the world to also clone living beings based on certain characteristics. Apart from humans, birds, animals, scientists have also been able to create new species of trees and crops. And this was based on what we call as genetics or the study of genes across different species. One such scientist was Dr. Hargobind Khorana who won the Nobel in 1968 along with Marshall Nirenberg and Robert Holley, for showing how order of nucleotides in nucleic acids, that carry the cell’s genetic code control the synthesis of proteins.
Born in a small village called Rapur, presently in Multan district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, in 1922, his father Ganpat Rai Khurana was a Patwari, basically a taxation clerk in that village. The youngest of five children, he initially studied in the village school. Though coming from a poor background, his father ensured his children did not miss out on education, taught them to read. He used to study under the village tree, would often have to go to other village homes to get embers for cooking coal.
He later joined DAV Multan, where his teacher Dina Nath Jee, became a father figure of sorts to him, after his own father passed away. After school, he joined the Govt College in Lahore, where he took up a scholarship for further studies. After graduating from Punjab University in Bsc Honors in 1943, and later Msc in 1945, he got a Fellowship at Liverpool for doing his Doctorate.
In fact, when Khorana applied for PhD in UK, the only placement he could find was in Liverpool Univ, and he did it from there. He got his PhD in 1948 for his work on Organic Chemistry, where he did research on Bacterial Pigmentation and Alkaloid structures under Roger Beer. He had an open mind when it came to research, apart from his field chemistry he also studied on biology and physics.He believed in adopting the best techniques, and he would spend time in other labs too observing the working there.
After Partition, he came to Delhi as a Refugee, around the same time he got a Fellowship from the Govt of India for further research, at Zurich. Between 1948-49, he spent a post doctoral year at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich under Professor Vladimir Prelog, who would later win the Nobel in 1975 for his work on stereochemistry. This was the period, that in fact influenced his thoughts on science. and his philosophical attitude too.
Returning back to India after doing research on Etherene Alkaloid, he however did not have the proper facilities nor environment to carry out further research here. He once again got a Fellowship at Cambridge, where carried out his research with Sir A.R. Todd who won the Nobel in 1957 for his work on enzymes and Dr. G.W.Kenner. Again this period was when he began to explore proteins and the structure nucleic acids, which would form the basis for his Award winning work later on. Around the same time, Fred Sanger was working on sequencing insulin, first protein to be done so at Cambridge. Max Perutz and John Kendrew, were working on first x-rays of myloglobin and haemoglobin during the same time. The work of Sanger, Perutz, motivated Dr.Khorana, to study on proteins and nucleic acids at Cambridge.During this time he fell in love with and married Swiss national Esther Elizabeth Silber too.
In 1952, a job offer from Dr. Gordon Shrum of British Columbia made him move all the way to Vancouver on Canada’s West Coast, where he joined the nascent British Columbia Research Center. Though the facilities were limited, the environment offered him enough freedom to explore and discover. It was during this time, that with encouragement from Dr.Shrum and good advice from Dr. Jack Campbell, he formed a seven member team to work on phosphate esters and nucleic acids. Notable biochemists like Arthur Konberg and Paul Berg, soon began to take note of Dr.Khorana’s work.
By 1960 he moved to the University of Wisconsin, Institute of Enzyme Research, which is where his biggest achievement would come. This is where he elucidated the genetic code, function in protein synthesis. The experiment earlier by Nirenberg and Leder on the triplet nature of the genetic code, was the basis for Khorana’s study. He confirmed Nirenberg’s findings of the chemical composition of a cell is determined by arrangement of 4 nucleotide. Basically it meant that arrangement of 4 nucleotide on the spiral DNA staircase, was what confirmed a cell’s chemical composition, function. He also showed that nucleotide code is transmitted in groups of 3 called codons, which play a role in production of proteins.
The concept of gene manipulation was again first outlined by Dr.Khorana, way before individual genes were characterized. For his pioneering work on elucidating the genetic code, and function in protein synthesis, he was given the Nobel in Medicine along with Marshall Nirenberg and Robert Holley in 1968. Apart from his work on genetic code, he is also credited for creation of synthetic DNA oligonucleotides.
His work on synthetic DNA oligonucleotides, would later play a role in creation of artificial genes and primers.This in turn laid foundation for development of the polymerase chain reaction(PCR), which helped in amplification of DNA fragments. He later moved to MIT and in 1976, along with his colleagues achieved first synthesis of an artificial gene in a living cell.
Apart from science, Dr.Khorana also had an interest in Western classical music, which he got from his Swiss wife. He loved nature, and he would often go for long walks or hiking or swimming.In fact more often than not he , would use the long walks to think through solving any scientific problems.Having spent the rest of his career in MIT, Dr.Khorana passed away in 2011, at age of 89, after a long and sterling career. In spite of his achievements, Dr.Khorana was known for his modest, down to earth attitude, not given to much publicity. The exchange program between University of Madison and Govt of India, Indo-US Science and Tech Forum, has been named in his honor.