Har Gobind Khorana Dies at 89

Nobel Prize winning biologist who first decoded how a triplet of nucleic acids encoded an amino acid passed away this month.

Nov 18, 2011
Edyta Zielinska

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, TOM ELLENBERGER

Har Gobind Khorana, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won the Nobel Prize in 1968 along with Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg for discoveries leading to an understanding of how DNA encodes information needed to make proteins.  He died earlier this month (November 9) of natural causes.

“He left an amazing trail of technical achievement,”  Thomas  Sakmar, a professor at Rockefeller University and a former student of Khorana’s told The New York Times.

Despite humble beginnings—his family was one of the only literate families in his village of about 100 people in Raipur (now Punjab), Pakistan, according to his Nobel Prize biography—he showed a talent for science and later earned a scholarship to study at the University of Liverpool, where he completed his PhD in organic chemistry.  Later, while working under a fellowship at Cambridge University, Khorana was exposed to the genetic research of James Watson and Francis Crick, and soon began to build on their discoveries. Using labor intensive biochemical techniques, he showed that 64 triplet combinations of nucleic acids encoded all of the amino acids necessary for life.

After deciphering the codon language of DNA and RNA in the 1960s, he and Nirenberg showed which codons marked the stop and start of protein translation. Then, in 1972 Khorana  constructed a gene from raw nucleic acids, and later demonstrated that genetic engineering was possible by inserting that artificial gene into a bacterium that then expressed it.

Despite his continuing contributions to science, Khorana was often described as an unassuming man who shied away from the spotlight.  He is survived by a son and a daughter.