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Professor emeritus Gobind Khorana, Nobel Prize winner, dies at 89

H. Gobind Khorana, MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry emeritus, died of natural causes in Concord, Mass., Wednesday morning. He was 89.

A winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, Khorana devoted much of his scientific career to unraveling the genetic code and the mechanisms by which nucleic acids give rise to proteins. “Gobind was a brilliant, path-breaking scientist, a wise and considerate colleague, and a dear friend to many of us at MIT,” said Chris Kaiser, professor of biology and head of the Department of Biology, in an email announcing the news to the department’s faculty.

Born in India in 1922, in a small village called Raipur in the region of Punjab that is now part of Pakistan, Khorana was the youngest in a Hindu family of one daughter and four sons. In an autobiographical note written upon winning the Nobel Prize, Khorana wrote: “Although poor, my father was dedicated to educating his children and we were practically the only literate family in the village inhabited by about 100 people.”

Khorana enrolled in Punjab University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1943 and master’s in 1945, both in chemistry and biochemistry. Upon graduating, he received a fellowship from the Indian government to study at the University of Liverpool in the U.K., where he received his PhD in 1948.

He did postdoctoral work at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology, where he met his wife, the late Esther Elizabeth Sibler. Feeling lost in a new country, Khorana later wrote: “Esther brought a consistent sense of purpose in my life at a time when, after six years’ absence from the country of my birth, I felt out of place everywhere and at home nowhere.”

After returning to the U.K. for another postdoc position in Cambridge, Khorana took a job in Vancouver, Canada, at the British Columbia Research Council in 1952. Khorana stayed in Vancouver for eight years, continuing his pioneering genetics research while raising two daughters, Julia Elizabeth and Emily Anne, and a son, Dave Roy.

In 1960, he went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he became co-director of the Institute for Enzyme Research. It was at Wisconsin that Khorana and colleagues worked out the mechanisms by which RNA codes for the synthesis of proteins, leading to the Nobel Prize in 1968, which Khorana shared with Robert Holley of Cornell University and Marshall Nirenberg of the National Institutes of Health. Khorana was among the pioneers of the now-familiar series of three-nucleotide codons that code for amino acids.

Shortly after, Khorana joined MIT in 1970, he — along with colleagues — announced the synthesis of two different genes crucial to protein building. In a major breakthrough in 1976, they completed the synthesis of the first fully functional man-made gene in a living cell.

He retired from the MIT faculty in 2007.

Khorana also took pride in mentoring younger scientists. “Even while doing all this research, he was always really interested in education, in students and young people,” says his daughter, Julia E. Khorana ’75. “After he retired, students would come to visit and he loved to talk to them about the work they were doing. He was very loyal to them, and they were very loyal to him, too.”

Rajbhandary says he will remember Khorana for his drive and focus, but also his humility. “As good as he was, he was one of the most modest people I have known,” he says. “What he accomplished in his life, coming from where he did, is truly incredible.”

Khorana is survived by his daughter, Julia, and son, Dave. A memorial service is being planned.

—MIT News Office