Juli Peretó vindicates the biochemist Joan Oró, key to understanding the origin of life, at the opening of the University of Lleida

Juli Peretó. ©Miguel Lorenzo.
Juli Peretó. ©Miguel Lorenzo.
Juli Peretó, full professor of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Valencia, has delivered this Wednesday the inaugural lecture of the 2023-2024 academic year at the University of Lleida, on the biochemist Joan Oró (Lleida, 1923; Barcelona, 2004). With the title L’albada química de la vida , Peretó has remembered Oró’s contribution, who proved the synthesis of adenine from hydrogen cyanide and initiated organic cosmochemistry, by proposing that comets would be carriers of water and fundamental ingredients for the origin of life.

Juli Peretó recalls that the Catalan scientist, whose birth centenary is celebrated this year, is a key figure in the scientific study of the origin of life. Oró worked at the University of Houston, where he founded and directed the Department of Biochemical and Biophysical Sciences. In addition, he also collaborated in several research projects of the North American Space Agency (NASA), among them the Apollo program of analysis of rocks and various materials from the Moon and the Viking, to develop an instrument that could analyse the atmosphere and matter of planet Mars.

"From the beginning of the 1960s, Joan Oró’s laboratory made important contributions to prebiotic chemistry, starting with the demonstration of the synthesis of adenine from hydrogen cyanide - a simple molecule formed by an atom of carbon, one of nitrogen and one of hydrogen, present in interstellar space and produced in electric discharge experiments such as Miller’s - . Oró’s pioneering experiment connected prebiotic chemistry with the origin of the constituents of genetic polymers and, thanks to him, adenine is now a more popular molecule", has explained Juli Peretó, also a researcher at the Institute of Integrative Biology of Systems (I2SysBio) , joint centre of the University of Valencia and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

In addition, the Valencian full professor recalls that Joan Oró also proposed that comets would be carriers of water and fundamental ingredients for the origin of life. "It had long been known that certain asteroids contained organic materials and Oró formulated a bold hypothesis that was intensively explored in the following decades: extraterrestrial organic materials, brought by comets, asteroids and interstellar dust particles, would have contributed to the inventory of raw materials at the origin of life".

The launch of Sputnik, in 1957, triggered the following year the creation of the American space agency (NASA) which soon considered as one of its missions to support studies on the origin of life and search for life outside Earth. "To a large extent, the initial development of prebiotic chemistry was funded by NASA and the Oró laboratory was a beneficiary, especially for its participation in the Apollo and Viking programs", explains Juli Peretó.

In Wednesday’s event, Peretó also recalled the importance of the University of Lleida in the context of the Middle Ages, and as in the birth of the University of Valencia, in 1499, "the Valencian great men who approved the founding Constitutions, in their chapter LV they asked Pope Borja for the ’grace or bulla to make doctors and bachelors and give any degrees as is done today in the city of Rome, in the Bologna School and in Lleida’. That is why it is so gratifying for me to take the floor today at this university".

"Joan Oró was a scientific and humanistic optimist, with great confidence in the future of science. For Oró, a life inserted in cosmic evolution, living beings as an integral part of nature, was an ennobling concept, not an impoverishing one", concludes Juli Peretó.

Currently, the figure and legacy of the Catalan scientist can be known, among others, through the Joan Oró Foundation , based in Lleida, which promotes scientific popularisation and research. Until next November 5, the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs hosts an exhibition that takes a tour of the personal and scientific biography of Joan Oró.

The inaugural lecture of the 2023-2024 academic year at the University of Lleida, by Juli Peretó, here.