Familiar Letters on Chemistry


My dear Sir,

The facts detailed in my last letter will satisfy you as to the manner in which the increase of mass in an animal, that is, its growth, is accomplished; we have still to consider a most important question, namely, the function performed in the animal system by substances destitute of nitrogen; such as sugar, starch, gum, pectine, &c.

The most extensive class of animals, the graminivora, cannot live without these substances; their food must contain a certain amount of one or more of them, and if these compounds are not supplied, death quickly ensues.

This important inquiry extends also to the constituents of the food of carnivorous animals in the earliest periods of life; for this food also contains substances, which are not necessary for their support in the adult state. The nutrition of the young of carnivora is obviously accomplished by means similar to those by which the graminivora are nourished; their development is dependent on the supply of a fluid, which the body of the mother secretes in the shape of milk.

Milk contains only one nitrogenised constituent, known under the name of caseine; besides this, its chief ingredients are butter (fat), and sugar of milk. The blood of the young animal, its muscular fibre, cellular tissue, nervous matter, and bones, must have derived their origin from the nitrogenised constituent of milk—the caseine; for butter and sugar of milk contain no nitrogen.

Now, the analysis of caseine has led to the result, which, after the details I have given, can hardly excite your surprise, that this substance also is identical in composition with the chief constituents of blood, fibrine and albumen. Nay more—a comparison of its properties with those of vegetable caseine has shown—that these two substances are identical in all their properties; insomuch, that certain plants, such as peas, beans, and lentils, are capable of producing the same substance which is formed from the blood of the mother, and employed in yielding the blood of the young animal.

The young animal, therefore, receives in the form of caseine,—which is distinguished from fibrine and albumen by its great solubility, and by not coagulating when heated,—the chief constituent of the mother's blood. To convert caseine into blood no foreign substance is required, and in the conversion of the mother's blood into caseine, no elements of the constituents of the blood have been separated. When chemically examined, caseine is found to contain a much larger proportion of the earth of bones than blood does, and that in a very soluble form, capable of reaching every part of the body. Thus, even in the earliest period of its life, the development of the organs, in which vitality resides, is, in the carnivorous animal, dependent on the supply of a substance, identical in organic composition with the chief constituents of its blood.

What, then, is the use of the butter and the sugar of milk? How does it happen that these substances are indispensable to life?

Butter and sugar of milk contain no fixed bases, no soda nor potash. Sugar of milk has a composition closely allied to that of the other kinds of sugar, of starch, and of gum; all of them contain carbon and the elements of water, the latter precisely in the proportion to form water.

There is added, therefore, by means of these compounds, to the nitrogenised constituents of food, a certain amount of carbon; or, as in the case of butter, of carbon and hydrogen; that is, an excess of elements, which cannot possibly be employed in the production of blood, because the nitrogenised substances contained in the food already contain exactly the amount of carbon which is required for the production of fibrine and albumen.

In an adult carnivorous animal, which neither gains nor loses weight, perceptibly, from day to day, its nourishment, the waste of organised tissue, and its consumption of oxygen, stand to each other in a well-defined and fixed relation.

The carbon of the carbonic acid given off, with that of the urine; the nitrogen of the urine, and the hydrogen given off as ammonia and water; these elements, taken together, must be exactly equal in weight to the carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen of the metamorphosed tissues, and since these last are exactly replaced by the food, to the carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen of the food. Were this not the case, the weight of the animal could not possibly remain unchanged.

But, in the young of the carnivora, the weight does not remain unchanged; on the contrary, it increases from day to day by an appreciable quantity.

This fact presupposes, that the assimilative process in the young animal is more energetic, more intense, than the process of transformation in the existing tissues. If both processes were equally active, the weight of the body could not increase; and were the waste by transformation greater, the weight of the body would decrease.

Now, the circulation in the young animal is not weaker, but, on the contrary, more rapid; the respirations are more frequent; and, for equal bulks, the consumption of oxygen must be greater rather than smaller in the young than in the adult animal. But, since the metamorphosis of organised parts goes on more slowly, there would ensue a deficiency of those substances, the carbon and hydrogen of which are adapted for combination with oxygen; because, in the carnivora, nature has destined the new compounds, produced by the metamorphosis of organised parts, to furnish the necessary resistance to the action of the oxygen, and to produce animal heat. What is wanting for these purposes an Infinite Wisdom has supplied to the young in its natural food.

The carbon and hydrogen of butter, and the carbon of the sugar of milk, no part of either of which can yield blood, fibrine, or albumen, are destined for the support of the respiratory process, at an age when a greater resistance is opposed to the metamorphosis of existing organisms; or, in other words, to the production of compounds, which, in the adult state, are produced in quantity amply sufficient for the purpose of respiration.

The young animal receives the constituents of its blood in the caseine of the milk. A metamorphosis of existing organs goes on, for bile and urine are secreted; the materials of the metamorphosed parts are given off in the form of urine, of carbonic acid, and of water; but the butter and sugar of milk also disappear; they cannot be detected in the faeces.

The butter and sugar of milk are given out in the form of carbonic acid and water, and their conversion into oxidised products furnishes the clearest proof that far more oxygen is absorbed than is required to convert the carbon and hydrogen of the metamorphosed tissues into carbonic acid and water.

The change and metamorphosis of organised tissues going on in the vital process in the young animal, consequently yield, in a given time, much less carbon and hydrogen in the form adapted for the respiratory process than correspond to the oxygen taken up in the lungs. The substance of its organised parts would undergo a more rapid consumption, and would necessarily yield to the action of the oxygen, were not the deficiency of carbon and hydrogen supplied from another source.

The continued increase of mass, or growth, and the free and unimpeded development of the organs in the young animal, are dependent on the presence of foreign substances, which, in the nutritive process, have no other function than to protect the newly-formed organs from the action of the oxygen. The elements of these substances unite with the oxygen; the organs themselves could not do so without being consumed; that is, growth, or increase of mass in the body,—the consumption of oxygen remaining the same,—would be utterly impossible.

The preceding considerations leave no doubt as to the purpose for which Nature has added to the food of the young of carnivorous mammalia substances devoid of nitrogen, which their organism cannot employ for nutrition, strictly so called, that is, for the production of blood; substances which may be entirely dispensed with in their nourishment in the adult state. In the young of carnivorous birds, the want of all motion is an obvious cause of diminished waste in the organised parts; hence, milk is not provided for them.

The nutritive process in the carnivora thus presents itself under two distinct forms; one of which we again meet with in the graminivora.

In graminivorous animals, we observe, that during their whole life, their existence depends on a supply of substances having a composition identical with that of sugar of milk, or closely resembling it. Everything that they consume as food contains a certain quantity of starch, gum, or sugar, mixed with other matters.

The function performed in the vital process of the graminivora by these substances is indicated in a very clear and convincing manner, when we take into consideration the very small relative amount of the carbon which these animals consume in the nitrogenised constituents of their food, which bears no proportion whatever to the oxygen absorbed through the skin and lungs.

A horse, for example, can be kept in perfectly good condition, if he obtain as food 15 lbs. of hay and 4 1/2 lbs. of oats daily. If we now calculate the whole amount of nitrogen in these matters, as ascertained by analysis (1 1/2 per cent. in the hay, 2.2 per cent. in the oats), in the form of blood, that is, as fibrine and albumen, with the due proportion of water in blood (80 per cent.), the horse receives daily no more than 4 1/2 oz. of nitrogen, corresponding to about 8 lbs. of blood. But along with this nitrogen, that is, combined with it in the form of fibrine or albumen, the animal receives only about 14 1/2 oz. of carbon.

Without going further into the calculation, it will readily be admitted, that the volume of air inspired and expired by a horse, the quantity of oxygen consumed, and, as a necessary consequence, the amount of carbonic acid given out by the animal, are much greater than in the respiratory process in man. But an adult man consumes daily abut 14 oz. of carbon, and the determination of Boussingault, according to which a horse expires 79 oz. daily, cannot be very far from the truth.

In the nitrogenised constituents of his food, therefore, the horse receives rather less than the fifth part of the carbon which his organism requires for the support of the respiratory process; and we see that the wisdom of the Creator has added to his food the four-fifths which are wanting, in various forms, as starch, sugar, &c. with which the animal must be supplied, or his organism will be destroyed by the action of the oxygen.

It is obvious, that in the system of the graminivora, whose food contains so small a portion, relatively, of the constituents of the blood, the process of metamorphosis in existing tissues, and consequently their restoration or reproduction, must go on far less rapidly than in the carnivora. Were this not the case, a vegetation a thousand times more luxuriant than the actual one would not suffice for their nourishment. Sugar, gum, and starch, would no longer be necessary to support life in these animals, because, in that case, the products of the waste, or metamorphosis of the organised tissues, would contain enough carbon to support the respiratory process.

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