He Should Have Won the Nobel Prize!

In 1913, a Russian pathologist named Nikolai Anitschkow figured out the cause of atherosclerosis, which is the underlying cause of nearly all heart attacks and most strokes. He even published his findings in the major international medical journals of his day. He should have won the Nobel Prize. If people had recognized the importance of his work, millions of premature deaths could have been avoided.

By the late 19th century, pathologists knew that people who had died of heart attacks and strokes tended to have a lot of softy, fatty material stuck to the inner walls of their arteries. This material eventually hardens with the buildup of scar tissue and calcium deposits. The presence of this material is called atherosclerosis, which means hardening of the arteries. The material itself is called plaque.

In its early stages, atherosclerotic plaque looks and feels like cheesecake. In 1910, a German chemist named Adolf Windaus showed that like real cheesecake, atherosclerotic plaque is rich in cholesterol. Because of his work on the chemistry of sterols, Windaus won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1928.

As soon as Windaus published his findings about the cholesterol in plaque, Nikolai Anitschkow started an important series of experiments at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg. Anitschkow dissolved some purified cholesterol in sunflower oil and fed it to some rabbits. Control rabbits got some sunflower oil without added cholesterol. The rabbits that got cholesterol in their sunflower oil got atherosclerotic plaque, but the control rabbits did not. To the naked eye and under a microscope, the plaque from rabbit arteries looked a lot like the plaque from human arteries.

Anitschkow and his coworkers discovered a lot of important things about atherosclerosis in those early experiments. As cholesterol researcher Jon Gofman argued,

If the full significance of his findings had been appreciated at the time, we might have saved more than 30 years in the long struggle to settle the ‘cholesterol controversy’ and Anitschkow might have won a Nobel Prize. Instead, his findings were largely rejected or at least not followed up. Serious research on the role of cholesterol in human atherosclerosis did not really get underway until the 1940s.

Why were Anitschkow’s findings ignored? Because they couldn’t be repeated in dogs. As a result, many scientists assumed that the findings wouldn’t apply to human beings, either. That’s an idiotic assumption, because atherosclerosis is rare in dogs, which are natural carnivores. Anitschkow guessed correctly that dogs and other carnivores are good at excreting excess cholesterol. Human beings and rabbits are not. Tragically, no one listened, probably because they’d rather eat meat than rabbit food.

Where Do Gorillas Get Their Vitamin B12?

Termites: The Other, Other White Meat

Vitamin B12 is one of the two nutrients that are essential for human beings but aren’t available from a purely plant-based diet. The other is vitamin D, which isn’t truly a vitamin but is a hormone that your body can make for itself if you get some bright sunshine on your skin. Gorillas live in Africa, where there’s no shortage of sunshine. The interesting question is where do they get their vitamin B12? Evidently, they get it from the insects and other creepy crawlies that they eat. Their favorites are termites—the other, other white meat.

As you can see, the gorillas just dismantle the tree where the termites are. That’s probably why they don’t bother using tools to fish for termites, as chimpanzees do:

Except for vitamin D and vitamin B12, plants provide all the essential nutrients that people need. Plants contain minerals, such as calcium and iron, which they have absorbed from the soil. Plants contain all of the other vitamins and essential amino acids, which they have made for their own purposes. Plants are also the original source of the essential fatty acids. However, plants don’t make vitamin B12, and neither do animals. All of the vitamin B12 in nature comes from bacteria.

Some plant-eaters get their supply of vitamin B12 from the bacteria in their own digestive system, as long as they are eating something that contains the element cobalt. (Vitamin B12 contains cobalt). Cattle and sheep are particularly good at getting vitamin B12 from their own gut bacteria. They have a lot of bacterial fermentation going on in their stomachs, so the vitamin B12 is made before the food passes through the part of the intestine where the vitamin B12 gets absorbed. Such animals are called “foregut fermenters.”

Other species, including rabbits and gorillas and human beings, are “hindgut fermenters.” Their gut bacteria make vitamin B12, but only after the food has passed through the part of the intestine where the vitamin B12 can get absorbed. Rabbits solve this problem by eating some of their own droppings. Wild mountain gorillas sometimes do the same thing, usually during periods of bad weather. Captive gorillas do it a lot more often, possibly because they are bored.

On the other hand, gorillas and human beings can eat foods that already contain ready-made vitamin B12. For gorillas, that means tasty, tasty termites, which get vitamin B12 from their own gut bacteria. Modern human beings who don’t want to eat termites, or any other animal products, can get their vitamin B12 from a nice, clean, and very cheap supplement. As long as their gastrointestinal system is healthy, people can even take their vitamin B12 by mouth. Vitamin B12 shots are useful for people who have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from their food, because of gastrointestinal disease.