A pioneer in biotechnology

Who was Har Gobind Khorana?

  • Nobel Laureate Har Gobind Khorana’s contributions to biology are of contemporary relevance for some of the most exciting areas such as synthetic biology and gene editing.
  • A Google Doodle on Tuesday to mark the 96th birth anniversary of the Indian-origin American scientist this week stoked much interest in his work.

What were his contributions to biology?

  • After James Watson and Francis Crick found that DNA (De-oxy ribonucleic acid) had a double-helix structure, Khorana was among those who significantly built on that knowledge and explained how this sequence of nucleic acids (better known as the genetic code) goes about making proteins, which is critical to the functioning of cells.
  • The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1968 was awarded jointly to Robert W. Holley, Har Gobind Khorana and Marshall W. Nirenberg “for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.” Khorana was able to create nucleic acids in the lab and did so by figuring out the order in which nucleotides needed to be to make a suite of amino acids, which are the basic units of proteins.
  • Khorana is credited with making the first synthetic genes by cutting and pasting different bits of DNA together.
  • This is considered a forerunner to the method called Polymerase Chain Reaction that is among the methods used to commercially read the unique genetic structures of organisms today.
  • He further placed the lab-made gene in a living bacterium and was, in that sense, a founding father of biotechnology. 
  • The CRISPR/Cas9 system, which is the glitziest new toy in genetics and is used alter the functioning of certain genes, references the work of Khorana as a key influence.

What was his connection with India?

  • Khorana was born in 1922 in Raipur, a village in Punjab now part of Pakistan.
  • He was the youngest of six siblings and his father was a ‘patwari’, a village agricultural taxation clerk in the British Indian system of government.
  • He lived in India until 1945, when the award of a Government of India Fellowship made it possible for him to go to England for a PhD at the University of Liverpool. Khorana became a naturalised U.S. citizen in 1966.


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