The Hush Post: Even as the eminent Indian-American scientist Har Gobind Khurana’s birthday was celebrated in Tuesday’s Google Doodle, the illustrious man had said that his birthday was just his own guesswork. “I didn’t know,” he had said once long ago. So January 9 is his birthday because that’s what the matriculation certificate said. Khorana was the fifth child born to a Hindu family in 1922 in Raipur, in the Punjab region of Pakistan.
Khorana was instrumental in our understanding of how our genes shape us. Bangalore-based illustrator Rohan Dahotre depicted Khurana in the doodle. He shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine with Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.
Khorana’s education started at a school in West Pakistan that was basically a tree and rain meant a holiday. He was quick to demonstrate an aptitude for science, accompanied with a lot of modesty and hard work. Khorana was so shy that despite a scholarship to study chemistry at Punjab University in Lahore, he went to major in English because he was afraid of facing the interview. The university still was impressed with his resume and enrolled him. He went on to earn master’s degrees in chemistry at Punjab University, followed by a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Liverpool in England.
His friend Uttam L. RajBhandary, a molecular biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Khorana was always interested in solving tough, critical problems. Khorana did stints in research institutions in Switzerland and Canada before he went to the Institute for Enzyme Research and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
There he decoded how cells read the language of RNA written in structures represented by the letters A, C, U, and G. He did this by using enzymes to create sequences of these letters. Arranging them into distinct patterns, he and other scientists found that the genetic code comprised 64 three-letter words, known as codons.
Khurana was married to Swiss Esther Elizabeth Sibler and Khorana’s biography praised Sibler for bringing a sense of purpose at a time when, he felt out of place everywhere and at home nowhere.