Science Art: Escut del Marquès d’Oró (Escutcheon of the Marquis d’Oró)

Scientific illustration in heraldry; the coat of arms of the Marquis d'Oró, showing a chemical diagram in the lower sinister quarter.

Scientific illustration in heraldry; the coat of arms of the Marquis d'Oró, showing a chemical diagram on the sinister side. Click to embiggen

The Marquis d’Oró (without that accent mark, he’d be the Marquis of Gold) has a coat of arms with a diagram of the molecule adenine in it, on the sinister side (“sinister” being to the left of the person holding the shield). The blazon – the instructions for painting the shield – says the first section is a gold background with a “mont de sinople” – a mountain of green – and the second section is, on a blue background, “la fórmula de la adenina, con sus 5 átomos de hidrógeno, los 5 del nitrógeno y los 5 del carbono, de plata, y los enlaces de sable” – the formula for adenine, with 5 atoms of hydrogen, 5 of nitrogen and 5 of carbon, in silver, with black bonds.

Why is this chemical formula on a noble’s escutcheon? Because it belongs to Barcelonan biochemist Joan Oró i Florensa, who was made a marquis – or a marquess, if you prefer, or marquès – after his contributions to understanding the origins of life on Earth, and his work with NASA on the Viking Mars mission, helping analyze soil samples to look for the building blocks of life on Mars. He found that adenine, a key component of nucleic acids (the “NA” in “DNA”) can be formed from simple ingredients like hydrogen cyanide, water and ammonia. And he also found that comets could be hauling this stuff around, whacking amino acids into planets as meteorites.