University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Folic acid one of several discoveries that made Esmond Snell world-renowned

Biochemist Esmond Snell, a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Berkeley, left a legacy that continues to affect people’s lives.

Part of his legacy is that fewer babies are born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly because of one of his discoveries.

In 1941 Snell, who died in 2003, and Texas colleague Herschel Mitchell discovered folic acid, a B vitamin needed to make DNA and RNA and that enables red blood cells to carry iron.

Using a steam kettle and filter press in the attic of the chemistry building (now Welch Hall), they processed four tons of spinach to isolate and identify the compound they named after the Latin word for leaf, folium.

Esmond Snell, shown in an undated photo, and his colleagues processed four tons of spinach to concentrate what they called folic acid.

Esmond Snell, shown in an undated photo, and his colleagues processed four tons of spinach to concentrate what they called folic acid.

Subsequent research in other laboratories around the world determined the connection between folic acid and neural tube defects. In 1998 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that folic acid be added to enriched bread, pasta and other cereal grains. Officials said the prevalence of spina bifida and anencephaly has dropped 26 percent since then.

“The immediate goal was to reduce the risk of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects, but it is becoming clear that folic acid fortification is impacting other aspects of health and disease as well,” said Dean Appling, a biochemistry professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “None of this could have been possible without the early work at UT.”

The folic acid discovery is considered one of The University of Texas at Austin’s most significant scientific achievements.

Read about the recent folic acid discovery in Dean Appling’s lab, Lack of Key Enzyme in the Metabolism of Folic Acid Leads to Birth Defects

More discoveries

Snell’s other discoveries include coenzymes of vitamin B6—pyridoxal phosphate and pyridoxamine phosphate—that are needed for proper growth and nervous system functioning.

Snell, who taught and conducted research at the university for 45 years in three stints, also developed microbiological assays using lactic acid bacteria for the identification and isolation of factors essential for animal nutrition/

Esmond Snell, who died in December 2003, was a Nobel Prize-caliber scientist, his associates said.

Esmond Snell, who died in December 2003, was a Nobel Prize-caliber scientist, his associates said.

He won several national and international prizes and was named to the top scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences. He was editor of the Annual Review of Biochemistry for 17 years.

“Snell was a nutritional biochemist whose work on vitamins and the chemistry of their actions was recognized internationally,” said UC Berkeley’s announcement of his death. “His research was considered by many to be on a par with that of other scientists who received Nobel Prizes in the 1930s and 1940s for their discovery of vitamins A, C, K, B2 (riboflavin) and biotin.”
Snell was nominated for a Nobel Prize several times.

“Had he received one, it certainly would have been justified,” said Jack Kirsch, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at California, in Snell’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Snell’s legacy

Appling, who researches folic acid, is another part of Snell’s legacy: he was a student of Snell’s first graduate student, Jesse Rabinowitz. A professor at UC Berkeley, Rabinowitz also did groundbreaking research in folic acid.

“There’s an academic lineage and a research lineage that works its way down through the years and it’s been fun to be a part of that,” Appling said. “I make sure my students don’t forget those connections.”

Appling’s lab researches how folic acid works on the cellular level.

Vitamin hotbed

Young researchers such as Snell working at the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute at UT made the school a hotbed of vitamin research.

The director, Roger Williams, had discovered pantothenic acid. Lester Reed, now a professor emeritus who also was the institute’s director, discovered lipoic acid. Another member, William Shive, would extend Snell’s folic acid research by studying its chemistry.

Photos of the institute in a university publication show young men with faces whose features have yet to fill out, their hair either close-cropped or slicked back. They wear short-sleeved white shirts and sit among a phalanx of beakers and test tubes. A photo shows Williams looking properly professorial, wearing a bow tie and a suit. In his hands he holds a lab rat.

Berkeley hired Snell away from Texas in 1956 and made him chairman of the Biochemistry Department, a post he held for six years. He left California in 1976, partly because of the school’s retirement policy. Back at Texas, Snell was named chairman of the Microbiology Department.

Enthusiasm to share

Snell retired as an active faculty member in 1990, but was a professor emeritus until he and his wife moved to Colorado in 2003 to be closer to family members.

He remained active in research and shared his expertise and enthusiasm with younger faculty members.

“I really enjoyed my time interacting with Esmond in his later years just talking over the old days,” said Appling, who came to Texas in 1985. “And he was very excited about the new research going on even though he personally had moved on to other areas of research.”

Snell died in December 2003, six days after the death of his wife of 62 years. He met Mary Terrill when she was a biochemistry student at Texas and they married in March 1941— the year of the folic acid discovery.

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