Vitamin A: From past to present

August 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Vitamin A and its fellow fat-soluble vitamins were discovered a century ago, but knowledge about vitamin A goes back to ancient times. For example, 3,500-year-old Egyptian papyri recorded the role of vitamin A.  These writings describe how an eye disease, which is now thought to refer to night blindness, was caused by vitamin A deficiency.  These ancient medical texts suggested that eating roasted ox liver, which is a rich source of vitamin A, was an effective treatment for this eye disease, says William Blaner at Columbia University,  an expert in vitamin A’s biochemistry and molecular biology.

The Inuit people also understood the properties of vitamin A.  Among the Inuit, it is a taboo to eat or even touch livers from polar bears or Arctic fish, says Blaner. He adds that the livers of these animals are so rich in vitamin A that, if they were consumed as the main portion of a meal, they would induce acute vitamin A toxicity. “Presumably, the Inuit taboo against eating liver from these Arctic animals reflects an understanding of the adverse consequences of this action,” Blaner explains.

Earlier this month, Blaner did a G+ Hangout on Air with me and ASBMB’s public outreach coordinator, Geoff Hunt, to discuss the history and current understanding of vitamin A research. The springboard for the discussion was a recent thematic review series that ran in the Journal of Lipid Research. Blaner, an editorial board member of JLR, was the coordinating editor for the review series on vitamin A.

Check out the highlights of the broadcast in this video!

(Video editing credit goes to Andrew Harmon, ASBMB’s science web publishing expert)

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