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Liebig's Chemical Letters



My dear Sir,

    The facts detailed in my last letter will satisfyyou 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, thefunction performed in the animal system by substances destitute of nitrogen; suchas 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 ofone or more of them, and if these compounds are not supplied, death quickly ensues.

    This important inquiry extends also to the constituentsof the food of carnivorous animals in the earliest periods of life; for this foodalso contains substances, which are not necessary for their support in the adultstate. The nutrition of the young of carnivora is obviously accomplished by meanssimilar to those by which the graminivora are nourished; their development is dependenton 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 constituentof milk - the caseine; for butter and sugar of milk contain no nitrogen.

    Now, the analysis of caseine has led to theresult, which, after the details I have given, can hardly excite your surprise, thatthis 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 vegetablecaseine 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 producingthe same substance which is formed from the blood of the mother, and employed inyielding the blood of the young animal.

    The young animal, therefore, receives in theform 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 conversionof the mother's blood into caseine, no elements of the constituents of the bloodhave been separated. When chemically examined, caseine is found to contain a muchlarger proportion of the earth of bones than blood does, and that in a very solubleform, capable of reaching every part of the body. Thus, even in the earliest periodof its life, the development of the organs, in which vitality resides, is, in thecarnivorous animal, dependent on the supply of a substance, identical in organiccomposition with the chief constituents of its blood.

    What, then, is the use of the butter and thesugar 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 theother kinds of sugar, of starch, and of gum; all of them contain carbon and the elementsof water, the latter precisely in the proportion to form water.

    There is added, therefore, by means of thesecompounds, 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 nitrogenisedsubstances contained in the food already contain exactly the amount of carbon whichis required for the production of fibrine and albumen.

    In an adult carnivorous animal, which neithergains nor loses weight, perceptibly, from day to day, its nourishment, the wasteof organised tissue, and its consumption of oxygen, stand to each other in a well-definedand fixed relation.

    The carbon of the carbonic acid given off, withthat of the urine; the nitrogen of the urine, and the hydrogen given off as ammoniaand water; these elements, taken together, must be exactly equal in weight to thecarbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen of the metamorphosed tissues, and since these lastare 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 weightdoes not remain unchanged; on the contrary, it increases from day to day by an appreciablequantity.

    This fact presupposes, that the assimilativeprocess in the young animal is more energetic, more intense, than the process oftransformation in the existing tissues. If both processes were equally active, theweight 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 isnot 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 smallerin the young than in the adult animal. But, since the metamorphosis of organisedparts goes on more slowly, there would ensue a deficiency of those substances, thecarbon and hydrogen of which are adapted for combination with oxygen; because, inthe carnivora, nature has destined the new compounds, produced by the metamorphosisof 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 Wisdomhas supplied to the young in its natural food.

    The carbon and hydrogen of butter, and the carbonof 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 greaterresistance 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 quantityamply sufficient for the purpose of respiration.

    The young animal receives the constituents ofits 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 givenoff in the form of urine, of carbonic acid, and of water; but the butter and sugarof milk also disappear; they cannot be detected in the faeces.

    The butter and sugar of milk are given out inthe form of carbonic acid and water, and their conversion into oxidised productsfurnishes the clearest proof that far more oxygen is absorbed than is required toconvert the carbon and hydrogen of the metamorphosed tissues into carbonic acid andwater.

    The change and metamorphosis of organised tissuesgoing on in the vital process in the young animal, consequently yield, in a giventime, much less carbon and hydrogen in the form adapted for the respiratory processthan correspond to the oxygen taken up in the lungs. The substance of its organisedparts would undergo a more rapid consumption, and would necessarily yield to theaction of the oxygen, were not the deficiency of carbon and hydrogen supplied fromanother source.

    The continued increase of mass, or growth, andthe free and unimpeded development of the organs in the young animal, are dependenton the presence of foreign substances, which, in the nutritive process, have no otherfunction than to protect the newly-formed organs from the action of the oxygen. Theelements of these substances unite with the oxygen; the organs themselves could notdo 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 doubtas to the purpose for which Nature has added to the food of the young of carnivorousmammalia substances devoid of nitrogen, which their organism cannot employ for nutrition,strictly so called, that is, for the production of blood; substances which may beentirely dispensed with in their nourishment in the adult state. In the young ofcarnivorous birds, the want of all motion is an obvious cause of diminished wastein the organised parts; hence, milk is not provided for them.

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

    In graminivorous animals. we observe, that duringtheir whole life, their existence depends on a supply of substances having a compositionidentical with that of sugar of milk, or closely resembling it. Everything that theyconsume as food contains a certain quantity of starch, gum, or sugar, mixed withother matters.

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

    A horse, for example, can be kept in perfectlygood condition, if he obtain as food 15lbs. of hay and 4ù5lbs. of oats daily.If we now calculate the whole amount of nitrogen in these matters, as ascertainedby analysis (1ù5 per cent. in the hay, 2ù2 per cent. in the oats), in theform of blood, that is, as fibrine and albumen, with the due proportion of waterin blood (80 per cent.), the horse receives daily no more than 4ù5 oz. of nitrogen,corresponding to about 8 lbs. of blood. But along with this nitrogen, that is, combinedwith it in the form of fibrine or albumen, the animal receives only about 14ù5oz. 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 carbonicacid given out by the animal, are much greater than in the respiratory process inman. But an adult man consumes daily abut 14 oz. of carbon, and the determinationof Boussingault, according to which a horse expires 79 oz. daily, cannot be veryfar from the truth.

    In the nitrogenised constituents of his food,therefore, the horse receives rather less than the fifth part of the carbon whichhis organism requires for the support of the respiratory process; and we see thatthe 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 restorationor reproduction, must go on far less rapidly than in the carnivora. Were this notthe case, a vegetation a thousand times more luxuriant than the actual one wouldnot suffice for their nourishment. Sugar, gum, and starch, would no longer be necessaryto 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 supportthe respiratory process.