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Vol. 35 No. 3
May-June 2013

Stamps International |

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Latin American Heroes of Chemistry

The eloquent prose and vivid poetry of many representatives of the so-called Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s brought well-deserved recognition to the subcontinent’s literature. As a matter of fact, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, two of my favorite writers, are among the six Latin American novelists or poets who have been honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature since the end of World War II. In contrast, only two Latin American scientists have ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Luis Leloir (1970) and Mario Molina (1995). Their careers and scientific accomplishments, a source of pride and inspiration for many fellow Latin Americans, are highlighted in this note.

Luis F. Leloir was born in Paris in 1906 but lived in Argentina since the age of two. He studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires and started his scientific career in 1932 at the Institute of Physiology, where future Nobel Laureate Bernardo Houssay (Physiology or Medicine ’47) introduced him to biochemical research and became a lifelong mentor, collaborator, and friend. In 1947, he was appointed founding director of the Instituto de Investigaciones Bioquímicas (IIB), a new biochemical research laboratory privately funded by the Fundación Campomar. Significantly, all the work that Leloir and his coworkers carried out that led to his Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1970)—for the discovery of sugar nucleotides and their role in carbohydrate biosynthesis—was performed at the IIB, often with limited resources. He continued doing research on a daily basis until his death in 1987. The renamed Fundación Instituto Leloir remains today a preeminent center for the study of the biochemistry of neurodegenerative diseases.

In turn, Mario J. Molina was born in Mexico City in 1943 and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1965. He moved to the United States for graduate studies in 1968 and obtained a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972. In October of the following year, as a new postdoctoral fellow in the research group of F. Sherwood Rowland at the University of California, Irvine, he started investigating the environmental fate of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a family of compounds widely used as propellants and refrigerants at the time. Within months, they developed a model that explained the progressive destruction of ozone by CFCs present in the atmosphere, pioneering work that eventually led to the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry they shared with Paul J. Crutzen. Since 2004, Molina splits his time between atmospheric chemistry research at the University of California, San Diego, and the promotion of collaborative research and public policy changes in air quality and sustainability at the Center for Energy and the Environment, a think tank he established in Mexico City in 2005.

For a short autobiography of Leloir, see: Leloir, L.F. Ann. Rev. Biochem. 1983, 52, 1-15. In turn, a biographical sketch of Molina has recently been published in: Tollefson, J. Nature 2010, 467, 902-905.

Written by Daniel Rabinovich <drabinov@uncc.edu>.

 


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