When thinking of those who have made significant progress in science and medicine, there are probably many names that come to mind. Unless you are particularly knowledgeable in these areas or work in these fields, one name that you might not immediately think of is Har Gobind Khorana. Thanks to this amazing man, significant progress was made in research relating to biochemistry that changed biochemistry forever.
Har Gobind Khorana was born in British India, which is current day Pakistan, on January 9, 1922. His family was poor, and he was one of five children. Despite their lack of money, Khorana’s parents were determined that their children should have an education and they became one of the few literate families in their village.
With the assistance of scholarships, he went on to study at the Punjab University in Lahore, where he achieved first a bachelor’s degree followed by a Master of Science degree. This was only possible thanks to the assistance of scholarships. When he moved to England in 1945m He studied organic chemistry at the University of Liverpool. And it was there that he received his Ph.D. He continued as a student as he moved to Switzerland to pursue post-doctoral studies. He landed an unpaid position in Switzerland to work on alkaloid chemistry.
Khorana returned briefly to his home country but was unable to find a job. This led him to return to England, where he lived in Cambridge between 1950 and 1952. During this period, he was working on a fellowship studying nucleotides and peptides with George Wallace Kenner.
In 1952, he accepted a position at the University of British Columbia to work for the British Columbia Research Council. Therefore, he and his family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, that year. Khorana’s new employers gave him the freedom to research whatever he wanted, and he chose to study nucleic acids and biomolecules.
His next career move was to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He held the position of the co-director of enzyme research and then became a professor of biochemistry. During this time, he worked on synthesizing functional genes and deciphering the mechanisms of RNA codes in the synthesis of proteins. This was his most significant work so far and it was his research from this period of his life that later led to him sharing a Nobel Prize.
Specifically, his Nobel Prize was for his work on interpreting genetic codes and their functions in protein synthesis. It was considered an important contribution to the field as he had built different RNA chains using enzymes and producing proteins. Khorana delivered his Nobel lecture on December 12, 1968, and was then acknowledged as the first scientist to chemically synthesize oligonucleotides.
He later extended his research to DNA polymers and used non-aqueous chemistry. His research was the first step to the invention of polymerase chain reaction and was a major leap towards using synthetic genes to sequence, clone, and engineer new animals and plants. It has become an important part of understanding DNA in human genes and analyzing DNA in research into gene-based diseases and human evolution. DNA analysis has become one of the most important fields of science in recent decades and none of this would have been possible without the work of Har Gobind Khorana.
Although Khorana’s most significant achievement is sharing a Nobel Prize, he has received many other accolades, awards, and honors for his work. In 1978., he was elected as the Foreign Member of the Royal Society. In 2007, the Khorana Program was formulated. This was a joint venture between the University of Wisconsin, the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, and the Government of India. This program’s mission is to support collaboration and to create a community between scientists, entrepreneurs, and industrialist from both India and the United States. Khorana was honored at the 2009 Steenbock Symposium in Wisconsin, which was hosted by the Khorana program.
In his personal life, Har Gobind Khorana was married to Esther Elizabeth Sibler from 1952 and the couple had two daughters and a son together. Khorana died in Massachusetts on November 9, 2011. His wife and one of his daughters had already died before him. Even after his death, his work is considered some of the most significant research not only in the field of biochemistry, but also in many other fields of science, technology, and engineering.