It’s Khorana’s birthday!

by Professor Ceiling Cat and Matthew Cobb (Matthew did the bits below the picture).

I missed today’s Google Doodle, which celebrates what would have been the 96th birthday of Har Ghobind Khorana (1922-2011), a molecular geneticist, biochemist, and Nobel Laureate.  He was born in the Punjab, India, on what is supposed to be this day in 1922 (all we have is some sketchy documentation). His background was humble: he was the son of a tax clerk, but one devoted to educating his kids. After getting a degree at Lahore University, Khorana moved to England, where he got a Ph.D. at Liverpool University in 1948. After a postdoc in Zurich, he moved back to independent India, then to UBC in Vancouver, and then to the University of Wisconsin, where he became an American citizen. He wound up at MIT in 1970, having had a peripatetic life.

The doodle (which. intriguingly is visible primarily, in North America, India,  Australia, Japan, Austria Sweden and Iceland – how do they decide these things?) shows Khorana carrying out the research that led to him winning the Nobel Prize in 1968—along with Marshall Nirenberg (who made the decisive breakthrough in 1961, with Heinrich Matthei) and Robert Holley—for his work on cracking the genetic code: how the information in DNA is turned into a protein.

Khorana was able to use his superior biochemical skills to synthesise small bits of RNA that were essential for working out what each ‘codon’ (3 letters of DNA or RNA) stood for in the genetic code. It was that insight and drive, expressed in particular in the years 1963-1966, that won him the Nobel. [JAC: How biologists cracked the coding is the topic of Matthew’s fine book,  Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code. I recommend it highly if you want a good biological detective story.]

The drawing of him in the center doesn’t show him playing some kind of odd musical instrument – he is ‘mouth pipetting’, so sucking up small quantities of often radioactive or otherwise noxious liquids to distribute them into various test tubes. This kind of procedure would be completely forbidden in any laboratory today.

One question that was raised on Tw*tter by Mike Nitabach of Yale University is what exactly the Doodle is supposed to represent. It shows two strands of RNA that are binding together. We know it’s RNA because the four bases are A, C, G and U (if it were DNA, U would be replaced by T). But it isn’t clear what biological process or experiment this is supposed to represent. Khorana’s key breakthrough was to synthesise very short pieces of RNA composed of only 3 bases. Even the process he was able to provide insight into – protein synthesis – doesn’t involve two complementary strands of RNA. The Doodle appears to be a bit of artistic licence.


  1. jaxkayaker
    Posted January 9, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Good catch on the unrealistic pairing of two RNA strands.

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 9, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Well, maybe it’s a bit of a tRNA hairpin?

      nah. Just license as PCCe says on a neato drawing is all.

  2. mikeyc
    Posted January 9, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for noting this. BTW, I’m olde enough to remember mouth pipetting.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted January 9, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Me too – how times have changed, mouth pipetting P32 tagged reagents was pretty common practice. This may explain a lot! The days of metal plates on the floor where a grad student had dropped a bottle of label and then walked it along the corridor on his shoes are, thankfully, behind us. Radioactivity in biology seems to have largely gone the same way as mouth pipetting.

      • Posted January 10, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        And that in turn was an improvement over (I believe it was) Berzelius, who trained his students in *taste identification* of stuff.

  3. Heather Hastie
    Posted January 9, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    This Google Doodle was in New Zealand yesterday (Tuesday) too.

  4. Posted January 9, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Very good. I remember well the practice of mouth pipetting. Nothing so dangerous as radioisotopes, but definitely not stuff that I wanted to taste.

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted January 9, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I was on the PhD committee of a student who went on to postdoc with Khorana. Numerous people cautioned him, saying things like, “You know, he’s 70y/o.” His ready reply was, “My PhD advisor (who was Klaus Hofmann, then one of the grand old men of peptide chemistry) is over 80.”

  6. Jon Gallant
    Posted January 9, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    When P32 was involved, we invariably employed those slightly clumsy propipettes. But, of course, we used mouth pipetting for everything else, including bacterial cultures, and more than once I swallowed some of this material. Since it was always one lab strain or another of E. coli, I judged that I was just sending them home, to join their distant cousins.

  7. Posted February 2, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    They had to show just 2 complementary RNA triplets, the synthesized one (artificial codon) and the anticodon. But I guess longer strands were considered better-looking.

    I know someone who once mouth-pipetted a suspension of live Trichinella larvae and swallowed a bit.

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