Looking back 100 years at two major biochemistry discoveries

This year the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is celebrating the centennial of two major achievements: the discoveries of vitamin B and the link between goiter and iodine. These two important scientific achievements, as well as the stories, personalities, and controversies that accompanied them changed the field of biochemistry at UW–Madison and around the world.

The department’s work with vitamins began with the “single grain experiment” with cows. The experiment, conducted form 1907 to 1911 by Stephen Babcock, E. B. Hart, Elmer McCollum, and Harry Steenbock, fed groups of cows only a single type of grain: either corn, wheat, or oats, and then a last group was fed a combination of all three. They found that the cows that ate corn were healthier than the others.

This finding told the researchers there was something essential in corn that wasn’t present in wheat or oats, and they began supplementing the other two with different additions, like parts of milk, to find what would make a diet complete.

At about the same time as the vitamin B experiments were taking place, scientists in the Department of Agricultural Chemistry (which later became the Department of Biochemistry) discovered that the disease goiter is caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. Because iodine is an essential part of the thyroid hormone, its absence from the diet causes excessive growth of the thyroid gland — the disease goiter.

Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis were responsible for the discovery of “fat-soluble A” (which was eventually resolved into vitamins A, E, D, and K), and E. B. Hart and Harry Steenbock confirmed that iodine can alleviate goiter.

These two discoveries and the department’s work in vitamins are just one example of the ground-breaking research that exemplifies the department’s history and makes up the modern research occurring today.

“There really isn’t a vitamin or mineral that’s been discovered that wasn’t somehow touched by a UW–Madison researcher,” Dave Nelson, a Biochemistry Emeritus Professor and the department’s defacto historian, says. “And while we have lots of diverse research taking place in the department, some are still working in this area. For example, we now have visualized at the molecular level how vitamin D works.”

To read the full story about these major developments in UW–Madison’s rich history of research, visit https://biochem.wisc.edu/news/2017/news-biochemistry-discovery-centennial-2017-10-13