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1985-86 › Juan Oró
8th Farfel Recipient

Department of Biochemical-Biophysical Sciences
Professor of Biochemistry, Faculty Emeritus
College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

On Christmas Day 1959, in the University of Houston’s Science Building, Professor Juan Oró exposed a solution of hydrogen cyanide and other chemicals commonly found in comets to heat and ultraviolet light. The reaction, which replicated conditions found on Earth some four billion years ago, produced not only amino acids, as theorized, but also adenine, one of the four chemical bases of the DNA code and a key component of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an energy-carrier vital to cell respiration. Thus Professor Oró demonstrated the role comets played in the development of complex biochemical molecules, the first step leading to the evolution of life on Earth.

Before he ever received funding from NASA or the National Science Foundation, Professor Oró pursued these studies on his own. To Juan Oró, this was about more than his job; he wanted to understand the position Homo sapiens holds in the universe. In the 1970s Professor Oró joined the NASA Viking program to search for organic matter on the surface of Mars. He disputed and ultimately disproved teammates’ claims they’d found evidence of microbe respiration in the probe’s chemical analysis of Martian soil samples, called “fines.” A firm believer in the scientific method, Professor Oró insists that all of his students learn to use and analyze results from the basic analytic tools of his profession.

Professor Oró prizes both his 1986 Esther Farfel Award and the honorary doctorate in science UH gave him in 1998. He continues to conduct studies and instruct graduate students as Professor Emeritus, and credits his work to “a combination of motivation on my part and the freedom that I found at the University of Houston.”

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