Biographies

Joan Oró and the origin of life

Joan Oró and the origin of life

Joan Oró Florensa was born in Lleida on October 26, 1923. Oró came from a modest family of bakers and had a brilliant scientific career. Already in adolescence, he began to question himself for the role of humanity in the Universe and the meaning of life. Dissatisfied with the answers given by religion, Oró oriented his studies towards chemistry and biology.

Bachelor of Chemical Sciences at the University of Barcelona, ​​he traveled to the United States in 1952, accompanied by his family, and four years later he received a doctorate in Biochemistry from the Baylor University College of Medicine (Houston). In 1955 he entered the University of Houston, of which he was a professor since 1963, where he founded and directed the Department of Biochemical and Biophysical Sciences. He has done important studies on the existing organic compounds in terrestrial sediments, meteorites and Moon samples.

He founded the Department of Biophysical Sciences at the University of Houston, in 1956, where he studied the metabolism of formic acid in animal tissues, research that would be key to the study on the origin of life and the interpretation of the absence of life in the planet Mars.

He highlights in his professional career as a memorable date on Christmas Day 1959, when locked in his laboratory, he discovered the synthesis of the ademine, one of the most important molecules for life. The paradox of its discovery was that this substance was synthesized from cyanidic acid, one of the most poisonous products.

Since 1963 he participated in several NASA space research projects, such as in the Apollo project for the analysis of rocks and other samples of the Moon's material, and in the Viking project, in charge of developing an instrument for molecular analysis of the atmosphere and matter of the surface of the planet Mars.

Joan Oró was one of the precursors of the theory of panspermia as a cause of the origin of life on our planet. The theory of panspermia maintains that the organic matter that gave rise to life could reach our planet in the comets that impacted the primitive Earth. In his research he developed a scheme that goes from the first thermonuclear transformations in the stars to life on our planet. In his book 'The origin of life' he wrote:

"Some of the prebiotic processes are reproducible, in general lines in the laboratory and it has been proven that the aqueous or liquid medium is the most suitable for its development. Therefore, it is almost certain that life sprang up in what has been called the sea primordial or primitive ocean. "

He also participated as a member of the Space Board of the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the Government of the United States on space exploration projects. These projects include, among others, the International Space Station in Earth orbit, and the manned trip to the planet Mars. From 1970 he promoted the International Society for the Study of the Origins of Life, ISSOL, of which he was president.

As professor emeritus of the University of Houston, he lived on horseback between Houston and Barcelona and was a member of several committees of NASA and the Academy of Sciences of the United States.

He returned to Catalonia in 1980 to collaborate in the new energy development plans and the study of alternative energy sources, and to work as a professor at the Autonomous University and as a director at the Institute of Biophysics and Neurobiology, although he retained his chair in States United. In that year he also held a seat in the Parliament of Catalonia and was part of several commissions of that Chamber.

In the 1990s he continued his work as a professor at the University of Houston and a member of various research committees of the North American Space Agency. Since 1992 he developed numerous chemical research projects related to space and was one of the main researchers for the analysis of the lunar samples of the "Apollo" project and the "Viking" project on the atmosphere and surface of Mars.

After retiring in 1994, Oró returned to Catalonia where he promoted the construction of an astronomical observatory in Montsec, created a foundation that has organized scientific meetings in Lleida and worked the last 10 years as a passionate ambassador of science.

With a dozen published books and more than 200 research papers, he was several times a candidate for the Nobel Prize and received the Grand Cross of Aeronautical Merit in 1983 and the Alexander Ivanovich Oparin Medal of the International Society for the study of the origins of life , granted in 1986.

He also received the Cross of the Civil Order of Alfonso X El Sabio and the Creu de Sant Jordi, in addition to also having a doctorate 'Honoris Causa' from the University of Houston. In July 2004 he received the Gold Medal of the Generalitat de Catalunya, a distinction that the researcher received at his home due to his already delicate state of health. He died on September 2, 2004 in Barcelona.

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