Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
Asparagus is my favorite vegetable. Some people may not believe me when I say that, but it’s true. It has a unique, hard-to-describe flavor that really makes my mouth water. It’s also a pricier vegetable than most, so it’s something I’ve come to associate with special occasions.
But aside from the taste, part of the reason I like asparagus is that it’s played an interesting and important role in the history of science. Several chemicals were first discovered in asparagus and have been named in asparagus’s honor, the most noteworthy being asparagine (chemical formula C4H8N2O3).
One fateful day in 1806, two French chemists—Louis Nocolas Vauqueline and Pierre Jean Robiquet—were performing experiments on asparagus juice when they managed to isolate a new and unusual chemical. Vauqueline and Robiquet named their discovery asparagine. Little did they know they’d just discovered the first of twenty fundamental building blocks for life on Earth. Asparagine was the first known amino acid.
Asparagine is considered a non-essential amino acid, which I feel is a misleading term. Asparagine is essential in the sense that you need it to stay alive, but it is not essential that you get it in your diet. Your body can make it out of other things.
I guess that’s fortunate for those of you who don’t like asparagus as much as I do.
P.S.: I have long been under the impression that asparagine is responsible for making pee smell funny after you eat asparagus. Apparently that’s not correct. That smell is more likely caused by a sulfur-containing compound called asparagusic acid.