Organic Chemistry: Why study it? What can it teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Universe Today has recently had the privilege of investigating a myriad of scientific disciplines, including impact cratersplanetary surfacesexoplanetsastrobiologysolar physicscometsplanetary atmospheresplanetary geophysicscosmochemistrymeteorites, radio astronomy, and extremophiles, and how these multidisciplinary fields can help both scientists and space fans better understand how they relate to potentially finding life beyond Earth, along with other exciting facets. Here, we will examine the incredible field of organic chemistry with Dr. Andro Rios, who is an Assistant Professor in Organic Chemistry at San José State University, regarding why scientists study organic chemistry, the benefits and challenges, finding life beyond Earth, and potential paths for upcoming students. So, why is it so important to study organic chemistry?

“Organic chemistry is a fascinating and powerful discipline that is directly connected to nearly everything we interact with on a daily basis,” Dr. Rios tells Universe Today. “This can range from what gives our favorite foods the flavors we love, to the medicines we take to help alleviate our pain. Organic chemistry is also the basis of describing the known chemistry that makes up the biology on this planet (called biochemistry) and can possibly provide the clues to what extraterrestrial life might be based on as well, should we find evidence of it in the upcoming years.”

While its name implies a scientific field of complicated science, the field of organic chemistry essentially involves the study of organic compounds, also known as carbon-based life, which comprises all known lifeforms on the Earth. This involves studying the various properties, classifications, and reactions that comprise carbon-based life, which helps scientists understand their structural formulas and behaviors. This, in turn, enables overlap with other disciplines, including the aforementioned biochemistry, but also includes materials science, polymer chemistry, and medicinal chemistry, as well. Therefore, given its broad range of scientific potential, what are some of the benefits and challenges of studying organic chemistry?

“Organic chemistry has played a vital role in transforming the human experience on this planet by improving our health and longevity,” Dr. Rios tells Universe Today. “All of us, or nearly all of us, have known either family members, friends or even ourselves who have fallen severely ill or battled some chronic disease. The development of new medicines, both directly and indirectly through the tools of organic chemistry to fight these ailments has been one of the most beneficial contributions of this field to society.”

Dr. Rios continues, “Learning organic chemistry in the classroom often presents a challenge because it seems so different from the general chemistry courses that most students have learned to that point. The reason for this is because organic chemistry introduces new terminology, and its focus is heavily tied to the 3-dimensional structure and composition of molecules that is not considered in general chemistry courses. The good news is that organic chemistry provides the perfect bridge from general chemistry to biochemistry/molecular biology which also often focuses on the structures and shapes of molecules (biomolecules).”

The field of organic chemistry was unofficially born in 1807 by the Swedish chemist, Jöns Jacob Berzelius, after he coined the term when describing the origins of living, biological compounds discovered throughout nature. However, this theory was disproven in 1828 by the German scientist, Friedrich Wöhler, who discovered that organic matter could be created within a laboratory setting. It took another 33 years until the German chemist, Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, officially defined organic chemistry in 1861 as a subfield of chemistry involving carbon compounds. Fast forward more than 160 years later to the present day, and the applications of organic chemistry has expanded beyond the realm of the living and can be found in almost every scientific, industrial, commercial, and medical field throughout the world, including genetics, pharmaceuticals, food, and transportation.

As noted, the very basis of organic chemistry involves the study of carbon-based life, which is the primary characteristic of life on our small, blue world. The reason is because the structure of carbon can form millions of compounds due to their valence electrons that allow it to bond with other elements, specifically hydrogen and oxygen, but can also bond with phosphorus, nitrogen, and sulfur (commonly referred to as CHNOPS).

While carbon-based life is the most common form of life on Earth, the potential for silicon-based life has grabbed the attention of scientists throughout the world due to their similar bonding characteristics as carbon. However, certain attributes, including how it shares electrons (known as electropositivity), prevent it from being able to form lifelike attributes. Therefore, if carbon-based life is currently the primary characteristic of all life on Earth, what can organic chemistry teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

“Life on Earth is highly selective in its utility of organic compounds, both big and small, which is an outcome of biological evolution on this planet,” Dr. Rios tells Universe Today. “But over the years detailed studies on the properties (reactivity, function, preservation, etc) of these molecules and polymers have revealed to us that there is nothing inherently ‘special’ about those biochemicals compared to those that aren’t associated with life (called abiotic chemistry).”

Dr. Rios continues, “What we have learned, however, is that there are trends, or patterns in the selectivity of molecules used by life that might be helpful in informing us not only how life emerged on this planet, but in the search for life elsewhere. This suggests that when we go looking for life in other worlds, we shouldn’t necessarily expect to find the same biochemical make-up we see in our terrestrial biology. Rather, we should be keeping a lookout for any patterns or trends in the chemical make-up of alien environments that are distinct from what we might consider typical abiotic chemistry.”

As noted, the science of organic chemistry is responsible for myriad of applications throughout the world, which are accomplished through the creation of new compounds. One of the most well-known applications for organic chemistry is the pharmaceutical industry and the development of new drugs and treatments, including aspirin which is one of the most well-known drugs throughout the world. Additionally, organic chemistry is responsible for everyday products, including biofuels, biodegradable plastics, agriculture, and environmental purposes. Therefore, with the wide range of applications for organic chemistry, including the potential to find life beyond Earth, what is the most exciting aspect of organic chemistry that Dr. Rios has studied during his career?

“For me, it was when I was in graduate school when I made the realization that I could apply the knowledge and tools of organic chemistry that I was studying in the lab, to questions that were relevant to astrobiology,” Dr. Rios tells Universe Today. “I am particularly interested in questions surrounding prebiotic chemistry, chemical evolution and the origin of life. The primary area that captivates my interest within the origin of life field is metabolic chemistry —exploring the origins of metabolism. This field, known as protometabolic chemistry, has been gaining momentum in recent years. Our community has been uncovering that small prebiotic molecules have the ability, under a wide range of conditions, to initiate simple reaction networks that can lead to more complex molecules over time. These results are exciting because they are potentially helping us understand the origin of one of biology’s most complex processes.”

The individuals who study organic chemistry are aptly called organic chemists who spend time designing and creating new organic compounds for a variety of purposes. This frequently involves examining the myriad of structural drawings of organic compounds and learning how each one functions individually and adding or subtracting new elements to create new compounds. Like most scientific disciplines that Universe Today has examined throughout this series, organic chemistry is successful through the constant collaboration with other fields with the goal of gaining greater insight into life and the world around us, including beyond Earth. Therefore, what advice would Dr. Rios give to upcoming students who wish to pursue studying organic chemistry?

Dr. Rios tells Universe Today, “Organic chemistry is a discipline that fundamentally interacts with so many other fields of STEM; biology, medicine, synthetic biology, bioengineering, chemical engineering, ecology, etc. Taking the time to devote a portion of your education in learning the language of this discipline will be one of the most important intellectual investments you will make in your STEM related career.”

How will organic chemistry help us better understand our place in the cosmos in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Laurence Tognetti

Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.

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