10 Bizarre Names and Strange Origins of Real Molecules

Everybody knows that scientists have an unconventional sense of humor — and paleontologists and astronomers are known for naming some of their discoveries in a whimsical fashion. But chemists and biochemists are required to stick to a strict set of naming conventions. Nevertheless, sometimes researchers get a little freedom and give a molecule a clever name, based on something about its chemical properties.

Let's take a look at some of the more bizarre and funny names, paying special attention to how the molecules received those names. Some are happy accidents, others are named for noxious smells, and one is named for a researcher's strange obsession with Mira Sorvino. Here are ten weirdly named molecules.

Top image from Ensoul on Deviant Art.

10 Bizarre Names and Strange Origins of Real Molecules

10. Fucitol

Fucitol is a happy accident bestowed by the forefathers of chemistry nomenclature. The alcohol form of the sugar fucose, fucitol is the obvious choice based on naming conventions, and researchers decided to keep the molecule's systematically determined name.


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9. Pterodactyladiene

Dinosaurs + Chemistry = Awesomesauce. This benign structure resembles the wild beasts of Jurassic skies, pterodactyls. Structurally, it's an interesting molecule due to the large amount of strain placed on the molecule due to planar carbon rings.


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8. DEAD & DEADCAT

This one has nothing to do with Erwin Schrödinger or his poor cat. Diethyl azodicarboxylate is often written as the acronym DEAD or DEADCAT (DiEthyl AzoDiCArboxylaTe), definitive evidence of the dry humor some resort to in a research laboratory. I blame the daily inhalation of volatile solvents. DEAD is used in the synthesis pathway of the anti-retroviral drug azidothymidine.


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7. Skatole

Believe it or not, the white crystal 3-methylindole is called by another name due to its putrid smell. Skatole is (naturally) a component of feces and used to attract mosquitoes to study the West Nile Virus. In low concentrations, skatole is sweet smelling and used as an additive in perfume and vanilla ice cream.


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6. The NanoPutians

Named after the tiny Lilliputians from Gulliver's Travels, Rice University synthesized these humanoid molecules as a chemical education tool. The basic form is shown, but researchers also synthesized alternate heads, bringing the NanoChef, NanoGreenBeret, and NanoScholar into existence.


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5. Thebacon

Thebacon is a semi-synthetic opioid that behaves like hydrocodone. German researchers synthesized thebacon from thebaine, a weaker opioid, in 1924, with the unusual name coming from its English interpretation. Thebacon is currently a controlled substance in the United States.


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4. Pikachurin

A retinal protein named for its nimble behavior and their affection for a certain Pokémon. Pikachurin is of some use, garnering the cover of Nature (the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue of academia), and could one day be used as a treatment for the visual condition retinitis pigmentosa. I'm petitioning the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to name a protein holofoil Charizard.


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3. Tie Fighter

The Tie Fighter is a supramolecule made by enclosing a buckyball in two zinc naphthalocyanines discs. The creators picked the combination to create an unusually shaped molecule that retains photochemical electron transfer properties without separating.


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2. Spermidine

Spermidine is tactfully named for the smell it produces — you can literally chase off an entire research lab with a couple milligrams. Spermidine is a very common laboratory reagent used in initial protein purification steps, entangling excess DNA in solution. It's also great for practical jokes.


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1. Mirasorvone

A group of researchers enjoyed Guillermo Del Toro's Mimic enough to name a molecule after Mira Sorvino, the female lead. In their paper detailing the synthesis, Cornell University researchers announced:

10 Bizarre Names and Strange Origins of Real Molecules

We have named compound affectionately in honor of Mira Sorvino, who, as Dr. Susan Tyler in the motion picture Mimic, successfully confronted the ultimate insect challenge.

Interestingly, mirasorvone is a steroid ejaculated by the sunburst diving beetle as a defense mechanism. Some researchers at Cornell really like The Mimic.


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