10 Chemical Compounds with Weird and Unusual Names

Scientists are some of the geekiest of people in the world. The seriousness of their work doesn’t stop them from having fun and giving their discoveries or inventions unusual names. When it comes to chemistry, especially organic chemistry, many researchers would agree that giving strange names to chemical compounds would make the subject more appealing and helps engage the students. Here are some of those chemical compounds with weird and unusual names that we are sure you won’t easily forget.

1. Pikachurin is a protein which ensures precise transmission of electrical signals between the eyes and the brain. It was named after the Pokémon Pikachu because of its “lightning-fast moves and shocking electric effects”.

Image Source: Eshwaren M, Pokémon

Pikachurin is an extracellular retinal protein that is essential for efficient interaction between the ribbon synapses in the eye and the dendrites of the brain. It was first described in 2008 by Shigeru Sato et al. of the Osaka Bioscience Institute, Japan, who named the “nimble” protein after the much-loved Pokémon species. Without the protein, the researchers have found that it takes three times longer to transmit the signals and the eyeball responses are slower than normal leading them to believe that it is connected to kinetic vision.

Disruption of pikachurin is associated with muscular dystrophies that involve problems with the eyes. Considering its importance to the clarity of vision, Sato et al. believe that the protein could be used to treat retinitis pigmentosa and other eye diseases. (source)

2. Luciferin, named after the Latin word Lucifer meaning “light-bringer,” is the chemical compound that makes fireflies and many other bioluminescent organisms glow.

Firefly Luciferin
Image Source: Yikrazuul, Prado National Museum

Luciferin undergoes oxidation in the presence of the enzyme luciferase to emit light. Luciferin and luciferase were named by Raphaël Dubois, a 19th-century French pharmacologist known for his work in bioluminescence and anesthesia. Both of them have undergone such diversification through evolution that there is no clear common mechanism for the bioluminescence, except the requirement of oxygen.

Though it is still unknown how many types of luciferins exist, those already studied are found in fireflies, a species of freshwater snails or limpets called Latia neritoides, bioluminescent bacteria, at least 60 species of brittle star, comb jellies, krill, deep-sea fish, and sea pansies.

The enzyme luciferase has many varied applications and is used in biotechnology for microscopy and as a reporter gene. It can be easily engineered and introduced into organisms or cells. This allows researchers to study cell populations in animals in a non-invasive manner and also helps study tumors and their response to treatment. (1, 2)

3. Kisspeptin is a protein encoded by KISS1 gene which was named after Hershey’s Kisses because it was discovered in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It might come as no surprise that it plays an important role in hormone secretion at puberty in humans. 

Image Source: chm.bris, Morgan

The gene KISS 1 was isolated by Dr. Danny Welch in 1996 in his lab in Hershey from a cancer cell that could not undergo metastasis which is spreading from initial site to a different site in the body. The gene contains information about the amino acid sequence of kisspeptin. In 2003, kisspeptin was found to play a role in secondary hypogonadism which occurs due to problems with hypothalamus or pituitary gland.

This led to a further discovery that the protein is involved in the early stages of puberty and stimulates the neurons to initiate the secretion gonadotropin-releasing hormone. The gonadotropin-releasing hormone is responsible for releasing the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and the luteinizing hormone (LH) both of which bring about the changes and physical development that adolescents go through. Kisspeptin is mostly found in the hypothalamus, though lesser amounts of it are also seen in a small region of the hippocampus. (source)

4. Piranha solution, a mixture of sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide, is so corrosive to organic matter that it was named after the Amazonian fish “piranha,” known for its voracious appetite. 

Piranha solution
Image Source: UNB, Tino Strauss

Piranha solution is made always by very slowly adding hydrogen peroxide to sulfuric acid and never the other way round. The solution gets extremely exothermic while mixing. If mixed too quickly, it would start to boil violently and release large amounts of corrosive fumes. If the concentration of hydrogen peroxide is above 50%, the solution could explode.

The solution is used frequently for cleaning organic compounds off substrates. In laboratories, it is used for cleaning glassware, especially frittered or sintered glass, a finely porous glass through which liquids or gasses can pass. It is also used in microelectronics to clean photoresist residue from silicon wafers and by electronics enthusiasts who use the solution to etch homemade circuits. (source)

5. Orthocarbonic acid is called “Hitler’s Acid” because its molecular structure, when drawn in two dimensions, resembles a swastika. 

Hitler's Acid
Image Source: Ben Mills, wikipedia

Orthocarbonic acid is made of one carbon atom bonded with four hydroxy groups and has the chemical formula H4CO4 or C(OH)4. The acid is a hypothetical, highly unstable compound that would decompose rapidly into carbonic acid (H2CO3) and water (H2O). According to the researchers at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the acid requires high pressure to be stable and hence could form in the centers of icy giants like Uranus and Neptune which have abundant carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

According to Professor Artem Oganov, head of computational materials discovery laboratory, and his team, methane begins to decompose at pressures above 93 gigapascals, that is 930,000 times that on Earth, and forms heavier hydrocarbons. At pressures four million times that on Earth, substances such as clathrate form and carbonic acid becomes thermodynamically stable. At 314 gigapascals, carbonic acid reacts with water to form orthocarbonic acid. (1, 2)

6. Draculin, named after Count Dracula, is a glycoprotein found in the saliva of vampire bats. It prevents the victim’s blood from clotting while the bat drinks it.

Draculin and Count Dracula
Image Source: M.Renatus et al., wikimedia

Vampire bats are native to the Americas, especially Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and can be found from Brazil to Mexico. They are the only mammals that have evolved to use blood as the only food source. The nose of a common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, has specialized thermoreceptors and possibly an infrared receptor in the brain that can detect where the blood flows closer to the skin.

Once they bite into their victim, the draculin in their saliva will keep the blood flowing as they feed. Scientists believe that this protein could also help stroke victims by removing clots and might help prevent heart attacks by thinning the blood. It has been shown to be effective for up to nine hours, though further research is required before it could be made widely available. (1, 2)

7. Bastardane, a close relative of tetramantane, has a structure unusual to its kind making it a deviation from standard hydrocarbon-caged arrangements and hence is the “unwanted child.”

Image Source: chm.bris, HBO

The IUPAC name of bastardane is nonacyclo[,18.03,16.04,13.05,10.06,14.07,11.015,20]docosane. Tetramantanes or diamondoids are variants of adamantane, a carbon molecule with cage-like structure. But unlike adamantane, bastardane has an ethanol bridge, which makes it unusual and “a variation from the standard types of structure found in the field of hydrocarbon cage rearrangements.” (1, 2)

8. BaZnGa is a compound made of barium, zinc, and gallium that was inspired by the character Sheldon Cooper’s catchphrase “Bazinga!” in The Big Bang Theory TV series. 

Image Source: Na Hyun Jo et al, CBS

The idea for creating the ternary compound came to Na Hyun Jo, a research student at Iowa State University, when she was watching the show. When Sheldon said “Bazinga!” she realized it could be a compound with barium, zinc, and gallium. She and Paul Canfield, a researcher at the university, checked to see if such a compound already exists and having found none they decided to grow it.

BaZnGa crystals can be grown by adding gallium to BaZn at a temperature of 800 0C and then cooling it down to 400 0C. The crystals are then removed through centrifuging filtration from the liquid BaZn. The popularity of the catchphrase has also led to various merchandise designs that feature periodic-table-like entries of the elements barium, zinc, and gallium. (1, 2)

9. Penguinone is an organic compound named so because its molecular structure resembles a penguin. 

Image Source: Dbc334, Samuel Blanc

Penguinone is a ketone with the molecular formula C10H14O and belongs to a class of organic compounds called dienones. However, penguinone is different from other dienones in that it does not undergo rearrangement to generate phenols, hexagonal structures with alternating pi-bonds. Despite its very interesting name, penguinone is not very useful though there is a speculation that it could be used in future drug development. (source)

10. There is a protein and a gene in humans both called “Sonic Hedgehog” named so by a postdoctoral fellow who saw his daughter reading Sonic the Hedgehog comic. 

Sonic Hedgehog
Image Source: Peter Znamenskiy, sonicthehedgehog

In 1980, developmental biologists Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus published genetic screens of the hedgehog gene (hh) in the fruit-fly for which they received the 1995 Nobel Prize. The gene was so named because the hh mutant larvae were covered in denticles or spikes, resembling a hedgehog.

Philip Ingham, Andrew P. McMahon, and Clifford Tabin conducted further research to find a vertebrate equivalent of the gene and found three homologous genes. Two of these were named desert hedgehog (DHH) and Indian hedgehog (IHH), and the third was named Sonic Hedgehog (SHH) by Robert Riddle who saw his daughter reading the comic.

The SHH gene plays an important role in the development of limbs, brain, spinal cord, thalamus, lungs, and teeth in embryos. The Hedgehog signaling pathway regulates the adult stem cells which are responsible for tissue maintenance and regeneration. Malfunctioning of this pathway has been implicated to cause cancers such as basal cell carcinoma. (source)

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