Remembering Nobel Laureate Khorana - Hindustan Times
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Remembering Nobel Laureate Khorana

ByFrank F. Islam
Jan 29, 2022 08:03 PM IST

The failure to recognise the contributions of Khorana this year . The origin of the 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 gene

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.

Khorana’s journey from Raipur, a small village now in Pakistan on the Jammu border, to being a Nobel laureate and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is awe-inspiring. It was a circuitous journey. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
Khorana’s journey from Raipur, a small village now in Pakistan on the Jammu border, to being a Nobel laureate and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is awe-inspiring. It was a circuitous journey. (HT Archives)

The failure to recognise 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 now in Pakistan on the Jammu border, to being a Nobel laureate and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is awe-inspiring. It was a circuitous journey.

Born as the youngest of five children of a village tax official, Khorana received his primary education at a local school with no conventional classroom. After completing his high school in Multan, more than 400 kilometres to the southwest of his hometown, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s from Punjab University in Lahore.

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

Khorana travelled back to India in 1949 with the intention of starting cutting-edge genetic research in India. But the scientific infrastructure in the newly independent nation was still nascent and did not provide the platform for a scientist who was on the cusp of doing something great.

Khorana 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 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 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 did not sit on his laurels after receiving the Nobel. Instead, he continued his path-breaking research to become the first person to synthesise a gene two years later.

Then in 1970, MIT came calling. In the fall of that year, he joined the institute as a professor of biology and chemistry.

Khorana’s presence at MIT was felt immediately as he helped synthesise two different genes. In the mid-1970s, he and his team synthesised a manmade gene in a living cell.

Until he retired from MIT in 2007, Khorana continued his path-breaking research, while also mentoring a generation of scholars and researchers. He died 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.”

Khorana was indeed an explorer. As his personal journey from Punjab to Liverpool, Zurich, London, Vancouver, Madison, Wisconsin and Cambridge, Massachusetts attests, he was willing to go to various locations until he reached the ideal place for his work.

Once there, his professional journey was exploring the genetics of the human body with a singular and dedicated focus in order to discover the previously unknown. His discoveries have enabled scientists and doctors to help find solutions to make all of our journeys safer and better ones.

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

Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal

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