Har Gobind Khorana, a biochemist who rose from humble origins in rural India to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1968, died on 9 November at the age of 89. He won the prize while working at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for working out how RNA codes for the synthesis of proteins.
Khorana was born in Raipur, a small village in the Punjab region of India, around 9 January 1922 (he was never sure of the date). His Hindu father was an agriculture taxation clerk for the British colonial government and was dedicated to educating his five children. “We were practically the only literate family in the village inhabited by about 100 people,” Khorana wrote.
Khorana received a fellowship to study at the University of Liverpool, UK, and received his PhD there in 1948. He then worked in Switzerland and Canada before becoming co-director of the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin in 1960, working on unravelling the genetic code.
His work earned him the 1968 Nobel Prize, which he shared with Robert Holley of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Marshall Nirenberg of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. RNA was known to be made of strings of four chemical bases, adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and uracil (U). The three scientists showed how triplets of these bases act as three-letter words to code for the different amino acids in proteins.
Khorana subsequently became interested in replicating this process synthetically. He moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge in 1972, and in 1976 made another breakthrough with his colleagues there — chemically synthesizing an artificial gene, and coaxing it to work inside a living cell.
Later in his career, Khorana became interested in other cellular components, including biomembranes and rhodopsin, a pigment involved in the biological perception of light. He retired from MIT in 2007.
In an e-mail announcing the news of Khorana’s death to MIT faculty, biology department head Chris Kaiser described the biochemist as “a brilliant, path-breaking scientist, a wise and considerate colleague, and a dear friend”.