Issue Date: November 21, 2011
Har Gobind Khorana Dies At 89
Nobel Laureate H. Gobind Khorana, 89, a biochemist and the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Biology & Chemistry emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died in Concord, Mass., on Nov. 9. No cause of death has been reported.
Khorana won the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for innovative research on the genetic code, which explains how the order of nucleotides in messenger RNA determines the order of amino acids in a protein.
“Khorana was an early practitioner, and perhaps a founding father, of the field of chemical biology,” says Aseem Z. Ansari, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “He brought the power of chemical synthesis to bear on deciphering the genetic code, relying on different combinations of trinucleotides.”
Born in India’s Punjab region, Khorana received a bachelor’s degree in 1943 and a master’s degree in 1945, both in chemistry, from Punjab University. A fellowship from the Indian government allowed him to study at the University of Liverpool, in England, where he earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1948.
After conducting postdoctoral work at ETH Zurich and the University of Cambridge, Khorana was recruited to join the British Columbia Research Council, in Vancouver, in 1952. He then began to study nucleic acids and synthesize many important biomolecules.
In 1960, Khorana became codirector of the Institute for Enzyme Research at UW Madison, where he helped decipher the mechanisms by which RNA codes for the synthesis of proteins. This work led to the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Robert W. Holley of Cornell University and Marshall W. Nirenberg of the National Institutes of Health. Subsequently, he began to work on synthesizing functional genes.
As Khorana was moving to MIT in 1970, he announced the successful synthesis of the yeast alanine transfer RNA (tRNA) gene at a UW Madison departmental seminar, says Uttam L. RajBhandary, an MIT professor of molecular biology. Six years later, Khorana completed the synthesis of another tRNA gene, this time “with all the signals necessary for the gene’s expression within a cell,” RajBhandary says. “He then went on to show that it functioned in bacteria. This was the first example of a synthetic gene that was shown to be functional in a cell.” This work laid the foundation for research on how a gene’s structure affects its function. Khorana retired in 2007.
That same year, Ansari and others at UW Madison established the Khorana Scholars Program, which enables the exchange of students between Indian research institutions and U.S. universities.
Khorana was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a member of the American Chemical Society for more than 50 years. He received the ACS Chicago Section’s Willard Gibbs Medal in 1974 and the National Medal of Science in 1987.
Khorana is survived by his son, Dave, and daughter Julia. His daughter Emily Anne and his wife, Esther, died before him.
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