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The pigments of life

Red blood cells and leaves

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Red and green are the colors that best symbolize life itself. At what is now the Technical University of Munich (TUM), chemist Hans Fischer was able to discover how red pigments in the blood and the green pigment chlorophyll in plants are structured. He even completely reproduced the blood pigment hemin in a test tube, which had long been considered impossible – and was thus awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930.

Chemistry breakthrough in 1928: hemin out of a lab

These two pigments are crucial to life on Earth, with red hemin transporting oxygen in the blood and green chlorophyll enabling photosynthesis in plants. What chemist Hans Fischer discovered was that nature has constructed both pigments in a very similar way. In his laboratory at TUM, known then as the Technische Hochschule München, he set about recreating their individual components – even managing to completely artificially produce the red blood pigment hemin in 1928. An extraordinary achievement for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry just two years later, in 1930.

For a long time, hardly anyone believed that it was possible to replicate such a molecule at all. But Fischer, surrounded by dozens of staff, spent years working on it in his lab. Organized into two shifts and deploying almost industrial-scale process planning, they continued until their synthesis was successful. First they decoded the structure of hemin, a huge molecule consisting of seventy atoms that form a ring around an iron atom. Then they recreated this ring, known as porphyrin. And in the end, they were able to reconstruct the hemin completely.

Fischer subsequently identified almost the same blueprint in chlorophyll. Decades later, Robert Huber, also a chemist at TUM, would establish exactly how plants and other organisms use this green pigment to extract energy from sunlight – which also earned him the Nobel Prize.

“This synthesis was the pinnacle of his [Hans Fischer’s] research endeavors – which, in view of both their scale and the incredible complexities associated with them, deserve to be called an epic achievement.”

Nobel prize medal

Henning G. Söderbaum, 1930, Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Picture: © ®The Nobel Foundation: Photo: Lovis Engblom

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