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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/832

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

investigation, where accuracy is necessary down to the infinitesimal fraction. The balances of the biologists must weigh the thousandth of a milligramme, as their microscopes measure the thousandth of a millimetre.

The great part performed by iron in organisms, what we may call its biological function, appertains to the chemical property it possesses of favoring combustion, of being an agent for promoting the oxidation of organic matters.

The chemistry of living bodies differs from that of the laboratory in a feature that is peculiar to it—that instead of performing its reactions directly it uses special agents. It employs intermediaries which, while they are not entirely unknown to mineral chemistry, yet rarely intervene in it. If it is desired, for example, to add a molecule of water to starch to form sugar, the chemist would do it by heating the starch with acidulated water. The organism, which is performing this process all the time, or after every meal, does it in a different way, without special heating and without the acid. A soluble ferment, a diastase or enzyme, serves as the oxidizing agent to produce the same result. Looking at the beginning and the end, the two operations are the same. The special agent gives up none of its substance. It withdraws after having accomplished its work, and not a trace of it is left. Here, in the mechanism of the action of these soluble ferments, resides the mystery, still complete, of vital chemistry. It may be conceived that these agents, which leave none of their substance behind their operations, which suffer no loss, do not have to be represented in considerable quantities, however great the need of them may be. They only require time to do their work. The most remarkable characteristic of the soluble ferments lies, in fact, here, in the magnitude of the action as contrasted with infinitesimal proportion of the agent, and the necessity of having time for the accomplishment of the operation.

Iron behaves in precisely the same way in the combustion of organic substances. These substances are incapable at ordinary temperatures of fixing oxygen directly, and will not burn till they are raised to a high temperature; but in the presence of iron they are capable of burning without extreme heat, and undergo slow combustion. And as iron gives up none of its substance in the operation, and acts, as a simple intermediary, only to draw oxygen from the inexhaustible atmosphere and present it to the organic substance, we see that it need not be abundant to perform its office, provided it have time enough. This action resembles that of the soluble ferments in that there is no mystery about it, and its innermost mechanism is perfectly known.

Iron readily combines with oxygen—too readily, we might say,