Do most animals make their own vitamin C?

Vitamins are only vitamins if your body can’t make them itself. Ian M. has heard that most animals make their own ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C. And he’s heard right: inability to make ascorbic acid is the exception rather than the rule throughout the living world.

Most vertebrates make their own vitamin C. So does the lamprey, a jawless, eely, not-quite-vertebrate with the kind of visage that makes strong men quake. Together these facts suggest that vitamin C production was a part of vertebrate evolution right from the start. Since then a few species, including humans, have acquired a spanner somewhere in the genetic works that prevents them synthesising vitamin C. Another oft-quoted exception is the guinea pig, but similar defects are found in bats, fish, birds and many of our closest primate cousins. But most animals can make ascorbic acid to order.

Those who are up with their Latin and Greek won’t need reminding that “ascorbic” means “without-scurvy”, which was ascorbic acid’s original claim to fame. Scurvy is no longer much of a problem, thanks to education, better nutrition, and food manufacturers piling on ascorbic acid as a preservative (while touting it as a nutrient, of course).

Today vitamin C is probably best known as an immune system booster — though as I have pointed out in the past it doesn’t really help a cold. It is an extremely important chemical though, taking a hand in all kinds of reactions throughout the body. Among other things it helps form collagen and battles those frightening free radicals (the kind that damage cells inside your body, not the kind that form cells and rail against the state: those demand something stronger).

If you’re the self-reliant type and this has left you feeling humbled by the already-humble lamprey, just remember that while vitamin C is important to have, it isn’t important that you make your own. Besides, even though we can’t make vitamin C inside our bodies, we can turn it out by the ton in our factories. There aren’t many lampreys that can do that.

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