The Catalan biochemist who expanded our understanding of the origins of life
2023 marks centenary of birth of Joan Oró, who worked with NASA and set up foundations in Catalonia
Joan Oró is one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, credited with expanding our understanding of the origins of life, and even being asked to join NASA’s team of researchers for some of their most monumental missions.
Beyond his achievements in the lab, Oró’s legacy will last for many future generations of Catalans, giving them the opportunity to study in their homeland that he didn’t have.
Born in Lleida in 1923, Oró was a very "curious" child born to a family of bakers, as Joan Anton Català, a science writer and educator, tells Catalan News. From a young age, Oró asked profound and far-reaching questions about life itself, and this innocent childlike curiosity would soon evolve into his lifelong work.
“Joan Oró made very important discoveries in the 20th century,” Català, who is also working as the curator for the series of events celebrating the ‘Joan Oró Year’ in 2023, says. One such discovery was the abiotic synthesis of Adenine, which tells us how “the ancient earth created Adenine.”
Every organism on earth, from humans to animals and plants, contains Adenine in its DNA, and unlocking this piece of the double-helixed puzzle has helped humanity understand the origins of life much better. “Adenine is very important for every organism on earth because it's one of the four letters in which nature writes what we call the genetic code in our DNA. [Joan Oró] discovered how nature created, for a very first time, Adenine,” Català explains.
This discovery marked a leap forward in our understanding of the origins of life, as it showed for the first time the mechanisms that pre-historic earth would have created such conditions for life to begin on this planet.
Oró was just 13 years old when the civil war broke out across Spain, and opportunities to pursue his scientific passion were slim to impossible during the Franco dictatorship.
“When Joan Oró made the decision of devoting his life to the story of the origin of life, that kind of investigation was impossible here in Spain. It was in the 50s, it was very difficult, and he tried to find an opportunity to go to the States, and he found this opportunity in 1952,” Català says.
The decision to move to America was an easy one when looked at through a professional sense – it was where he could carry out the research he wanted to undertake – but it was a very difficult one on a personal level. He had little command of the English language and left behind his wife and children, whom it would take numerous years before they eventually joined Oró stateside.
In America, the scientist passed through the Rice Institute and Baylor University, but it was in the University of Houston where Oró made the discovery that shot him to worldwide scientific fame, that of Adenine synthesis.
Life on Mars? Probably not
By the 1960s, Oró was a very well-known figure in the scientific community. NASA asked him to become an advisor for space exploration and the Apollo missions, where he helped analyze moon samples and certified that life was not present on the moon. Later, he advised the American space agency on the Viking program, when humans sent a device to explore Mars for the first time.
After some investigation was done on the findings of the Viking mission, the American administration was on the precipice of declaring they had discovered evidence that could point to life existing on the red planet.
However, it was Oró’s biochemical interpretation of the same results that pointed to a different, far simpler answer: that the would-be evidence of life on Mars was actually explained by a regular chemical reaction that could be recreated on earth. This showed that, despite the abundant excitement at the time, evidence still didn’t exactly point to life on Mars.
Values of learning, conservation, peace
Joan Oró passionately believed that science and knowledge was the best weapon to fight against wars and injustices. He defended not only the scientific value of space missions but also the social value, as the realization of our place in the universe, on the planet earth, helps us understand the big picture surrounding us, leading to the conclusion that cooperation and peace are the only ways we can survive as a species, Oró belived. “He was a defender of peace, of cooperation, of humility,” Català affirms.
When he retired from the University of Houston, Oró returned to Catalonia and worked to improve the field of scientific research here. The world-renowned Catalan came home to create various bodies to encourage young people to learn in their own homeland, an opportunity he didn’t have.
He created the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation, an organism working to improve investigation and inspire young people to study science and technology. He also set up the Montsec Astronomical Observatory in western Catalonia, a part of the world with amazing night skies. In addition, the Joan Oró Foundation is the organization that cares for all of Oró’s assets, including personal diaries and letters which contain huge historical value.
"He said that when we contemplate the earth from the moon, we see just a tiny dot, and we are all inside that dot, so we are obliged to cooperate, there is no other solution for us but to cooperate,” Català adds. “He was famous at that time and he used his name to impart those messages, very important messages, values for us, even very important today."
Català is particularly touched by Oró’s perspective of the world when contemplating the good luck needed for so many elements to be perfectly aligned to allow life to take off on this planet. “When we realize how difficult it was for nature to create life here on earth, how this life has evolved during billions of years until we are here, this is like, ‘wow’. We should feel very, very, fortunate to have a life."