The Untold Story of Folic Acid and DNA Damage

 3 min read

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In the 1980s, a scientist was irradiating mice.

Irradiating just means that he was sending radiation through the body of the mice (the X-ray kind of radiation).

He was studying the effects radiation had on mice… but let me back up a bit and explain to you how he was doing that.

Red blood cells don’t have a nucleus

They’re the only cells in the body that don’t. And because they don’t have a nucleus, they don’t have any DNA in them.

But a scientist put some fluorescent reagent (basically a dye used to check for DNA) in a tray of red blood cells under a microscope. The tray lit up. 1 out of every 2000 red blood cells had some chromosomes. [1]

But this doesn’t make sense does it? How can a cell without DNA have any chromosomes? It would be like finding an engine in your driveway without a car. 

These chromosomes found in the red blood cells are chromosome breaks. When a red blood cell is being created, it has a nucleus which is removed later. If the red blood cell has a chromosome break (damaged DNA) then when the nucleus is removed, some of the chromosomes get left behind.

So, coming back to the mice.

The scientist was sending X-rays through the mice and looking at how many chromosome breaks they had. He was looking at how badly their DNA got damaged from the radiation.That’s when he noticed that all the mice in the control batch had chromosome breaks. The control batch is the one that did not get any radiation. So, he couldn’t figure out why this happened.

He yelled at his lab technician but he said that he didn’t accidentally radiate the mice.

Somehow… the scientist got the idea to check the food the mice were eating. Turns out the company that made the mouse food forgot to add folic acid to the food.

This is where the story of folic acid and DNA begins

The scientist, James MacGregor from the Toxicology Lab at SRI International, realized that folic acid deficiency was causing mice to get chromosome breaks even without radiation. 

Now he wanted to test out his hypothesis on humans. But there was just one problem. These damaged red blood cells are filtered out by the spleen in humans.

So, he had two options: (1) to get red blood cells from bone marrow which haven’t been filtered by the spleen or (2) to get red blood cells from people without spleens.

He called up a health database and got a list of people who had their spleens removed. He called up these people, most of them refused, but 20 of them agreed to be a part of his experiment. He took a sample of their blood and found exactly what he was looking for, DNA damage. Especially one guy who had the DNA damage of someone sitting next to an X-ray for 10 years. [2]

As soon as he started giving them a folic acid supplement, chromosome breaks fell straight down to normal levels.

You might think that this was a breakthrough discovery — that folate deficiency causes chromosome breaks/DNA damage — but it was not.

It went unnoticed for decades. But a few scientists researched more about this.The only person who spoke about this story is Dr Bruce Ames.

Even if you use google to search about this story, you won’t find much.

Comparing DNA Damage between X-rays & Folic Acid Deficiency

A few decades later in 2003, Dr Fenech from Australia conducted an experiment where he looked at DNA damage from X-rays and from folic acid deficiency. It’s scary how low folic acid levels can cause the same DNA damage as getting X-rayed 100 times. [3] 

Just by looking at the graph below, you can see the linear relationship between the two. Lower the folic acid, more the DNA damage.

However, James MacGregory and his story did lead Dr. Ames to start studying nutrition and come up with the triage theory. The triage theory is what we believe in and why we started LyfeFuel.

Triage Theory: When the body is deficient in vitamins and minerals, it uses these vitamins/minerals for short term survival while giving up on long term health.

If you want to get your daily dose of folic acid, then eat more legumes and leafy vegetables or just add an essential shake to your diet.


[1] TheIHMC, Bruce Ames: Vitamin and Mineral Inadequacy Accelerates Aging-associated Disease

[2] Everson et al, Association of Marginal Folate Depletion With Increased Human Chromosomal Damage In Vivo: Demonstration by Analysis of Micronucleated Erythrocytes [1988] National Cancer Institute Vol. 80 No. 7

[3] M Fenech, Nutritional treatment of genome instability: a paradigm shift in disease prevention and in the setting of recommended dietary allowances [2003] Nutrition Research Reviews

Disclaimer: The LYFE Fuel blog is for informational purposes only. The information does not serve as a replacement for professional medical advice or treatment. We kindly ask you not to ignore professional medical advice because of any information you’ve read on If you have any concerns about your health, please consult a physician or appropriate health care expert.