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Gee Whiz: Scientists Solve 150-Year Mystery Behind Why Urine is Yellow

Scientists Determine Why Human Urine is Yellow in Color: Study
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Scientists have determined why human urine is yellow in color, study says.

Jan. 19 2024, Published 2:08 p.m. ET

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Scientists have uncovered the mystery behind the color of urine, an unappetizing issue that has puzzled researchers for over 150 years.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Microbiology, a team of researchers from the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Health revealed that bilirubin is the key factor responsible for the yellow color of human urine.

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Urine is a combination of water, electrolytes and waste products filtered by the kidneys. Although urobilin was identified as the cause of urine's yellow pigmentation in 1868, the specific reason behind the odd coloration remained elusive.

The breakthrough solving the mystery stems from the revelation that as red blood cells reach the end of their six-month life cycle, they break down into the vibrant orange pigment bilirubin. This pigment typically enters the gut, where it can either be excreted or partially reabsorbed.

The study found that intestinal microorganisms play a crucial role in transforming bilirubin into various molecules. Specifically, “gut microbes encode the enzyme bilirubin reductase that converts bilirubin into a colorless byproduct called urobilinogen,” said Brantley Hall, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics, told Maryland Today.

Urobilinogen then degrades into urobilin, the molecule responsible for the familiar yellow color of urine.

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Hall expressed excitement about finally explaining this everyday biological phenomenon that had remained unexplained for so long. The discovery sheds light on a critical aspect of human biology and is considered a “remarkable” breakthrough.

This newfound understanding of the coloration of urine, a substance crucial for diagnosing various illnesses and disorders, is expected to open doors for further medical breakthroughs.

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Hall believes that the identification of the enzyme involved could lead to advancements in combating conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and jaundice.

Looking ahead, the researchers plan to extend their studies to human subjects, particularly focusing on premature infants with high jaundice rates. By investigating how gut bacteria influence bilirubin levels, the team aims to deepen their understanding of conditions like jaundice and lay the foundation for exploring the gut-liver axis.

This discovery not only provides insight into the color of urine but also brings researchers one step closer to comprehending the role of gut microbiomes in overall human health, with potential implications for a range of diseases and conditions, from allergies to arthritis.

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