Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker

The scourge o’ scurvy

Monday September 19 was International Talk Like A Pirate Day [where do these pish ‘n tosh, mammering pea-brained ‘days’ hail?] – but in ragbag recognition, me hearties, this interesting article tackles the pirate’s biggest concern (after other pirates, official Navies, reefs or anything else that was part of the pirate lifestyle), scurvy. It’s a very nasty condition and still a scourge in parts of the world, too.

Scurvy is caused by a deficiency in vitamin C which humans and other primates receive by consuming food, particularly citrus fruits. But it turns out scurvy wouldn’t be a problem if not for one single mutated gene which, if it was still in tip top condition, would allow us to synthesise our own vitamin C, like every other friggin thing on this planet.

Humans cannot synthesise vitamin C as the gene for the enzyme L-gulonolactone oxidase (abbreviated to GULO, why do I think that is adorable?) is mutated. This enzyme is the last in a four step process other animals and plants use to convert glucose to vitamin C. Lucky for us then that we can consume and maintain a high level of it very easily, in fact most monkey species (including us) regularly take in up to 10 to 20 times the daily requirement.

Maintaining vitamin C levels is very important because it is considered to be an essential nutrient for growth and development. Vitamin C, or ascorbate (or ascorbic acid depending on how pedantic you are), is a powerful antioxidant and enzymatic co-factor (some enzymes need the support of another product, ascorbate helps at least 8 needy enzymes) and is fundamental to collagen synthesis, which becomes important later.

Vitamin C deficiency or scurvy, picked up its association with pirates due to the time spent at sea preventing them from maintaining a supply of fresh food, particularly fruits and vegetables.

Pirate cuisine was less than appetising with common foods including thrice cooked breads (called hard tack or ship biscuits), salted pork or beef (made by boiling the meat in seawater), fish (but less often than you would think, not a lot of time to fish on a pirate ship) and dried staples like rice. If they could land the pirates would hunt for fresh fruits and vegetable as well as meat but food can only stay fresh for so long.

As the fresh supplies ran out, scurvy would set in. First signs of scurvy manifest as lethargy and malaise, which could easily been seen by others as laziness on a working pirate ship so many probably ignored the early signs of disease. After a couple of months without vitamin C your bones and muscles start to hurt and you also start to suffer chronic shortness of breath.

Then things start to get real….

Scientific American: Read the full article here

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