A lot of the food we eat must be processed with chemicals so that it is ready to eat, both for humans and animals. Agricultural chemistry is the field that does this, and Arturi Virtanen is considered the star of this field!
Virtanen became a professor at the University of Helsinki, Finland in 1924. There he started his scientific research working on the chemistry of life. A very important biochemical process is fermentation, in which bacteria break down complex molecules into simpler ones. Virtanen’s research concerned a part of fermentation called phosphorylation.
Phosphorylation is a reaction in which a phosphate group (-PO3) is attached to a sugar or protein. Virtanen showed that the phosphorylation of sugar was the first step in fermentation, in which sugar would be broken up into simpler molecules like alcohol or acetic acid. If fermentation continues, the final product is carbon dioxide.
Virtanen lived in a cold country (Finland), where food and fodder has to be stored up for winter. Fodder for cattle was generally stored as silage. To make silage, the fodder is shredded into small pieces and fermented to remove all the oxygen. This prevents rotting, so the fodder can be eaten through the winter.
Virtanen found a method to improve the preservation of the fodder. He added dilute acid (hydrochloric or sulfuric) to the silage. The increased acidity prevented excessive fermentation, but was completely safe for the animals to eat it. This preserved fodder is called AIV Fodder (after his initials). It became so useful to farmers around Europe, that Virtanen was given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1945.
Life & Career
Arturi Virtanen was born in Helsinki on 15 January, 1895. He finished his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Helsinki in 1918, and joined the dairy products company Valio. In 1920 he became the director of the company’s research laboratory.
He was unsatisfied with his job as he had a big thirst for more knowledge. So he traveled to Switzerland, Germany and Sweden to study more about physical chemistry, soil chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology. While in Sweden he studied with the famous biochemist Hans von Euler-Chelpin. He came back to Finland in 1924, as a lecturer at the University of Helsinki. At the same time, he also headed the laboratory of his old company, Valio.
In 1933, he purchased a farm outside Helsinki, where he carried out many of his experiments. He died in 1973.
He has two interesting honours, apart from many medals and awards. A crater on the moon was named Virtanen after him, as was an asteroid, 1449 Virtanen. Aren’t those fun honours to have?