Professor Har Ghobind Khorana: Biochemist who helped decipher the genetic code and synthesised the first artificial gene


Har Gobind Khorana, who has died at the age of 89, shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for helping decipher the genetic code, and went on to synthesize the first artificial gene. He was Alfred P Sloan Professor Emeritus of biology and chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology – a title which indicates how his work crossed disciplines: chemistry, molecular biology, biophysics and biochemistry.

Almost anyone studying biology today, "may not know they are studying Khorana, but they are," Andy Greene, a director of the biotechnology and bioengineering centre at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said.

Khorana was awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg for research that helped to show how the nucleotides in nucleic acids, which carry the genetic code of the cell, control the cell's synthesis of proteins.

The basic building blocks of DNA are the nucleotides, and Khorana built on the work of James Watson and Francis Crick – who famously discovered the structure of DNA – showing how the nucleotides combine to form the three-letter "words" that represent amino acids, from which proteins are made.

Khorana was born in 1922 in Raipur, a village in Punjab. He was the son of a tax clerk who ensured he received the best education possible: "Although poor, my father was dedicated to educating his children and we were practically the only literate family in the village."

After gaining an MSc from the Punjab University in Lahore, he won a scholarship that took him to Liverpool University, where he received his PhD in Organic Chemistry. He continued his postdoctoral studies in Zürich then spent two years at Cambridge, moving on to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and in 1960 the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin, where he did the work that led to his Nobel Prize.

After moving to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970, he worked to synthesise two genes crucial to building proteins. In 1976, his team synthesised the first completely functional man-made gene in a living cell, paving the way for genetic engineering and the biotechnology industry.

Har Gobind Khorana, scientist: born 9 January 1922; married 1952 Esther Sibler (deceased; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died 9 November 2011.