Hyaluronan and the Cockerel’s Comb

Hyaluronan is why the cockerel's comb illustrated with a cockerel with a magnificent red comb, and text that reads, 'I combed it specially for you.'

The message in this greeting card ‘I combed it especially for you’ is a pun on the word ‘comb’, the fleshy red skin on a cockerel’s head. And the reasoh why the cockerel’s comb is red is that it contains hyalururonan, or hyaluronic acid as it is also called,

The word comb comes from ‘gambha’ – a Sanskrit word for tooth, which fits with the comb with which we comb our hair and the toothed comb on a cockerel’s head.

Court Jesters

An alternative to ‘a cock’s comb’ is cockscomb, which means a foolish, conceited person.

That’s why court jesters wore caps with combs on them, so that they could make fools of conceited people to entertain the court.

But does why cockscomb or coxcomb have the connotation of foolishness? Maybe because people think of chickens as brainless, which of course they are not. They are brainy enough that they survive through to the twenty-first century.

Of course, the fleshy comb on a cockerel’s head is designed to attract mates. And the more it can stand up and swell, the more attractive it is to females. And the reason it swells is that the hyaluronan molecule is so large that its molecular weight often reaches the millions. And it accumulates in response to testosterone.

We humans have about 15g (half an ounce) of hyaluranon in our bodies. Most of it is in our eyeballs and our skin, and it’s the body’s natural lubrication, and it degrades naturally and you replace about a third of it daily.

It’s a gooey substance that holds water. Because it hydrates the skin, it is often used in anti-aging creams. It’s also use in eye surgery and the treatment of arthritis.

And most of the natural hyaluronan that’s used in creams and medicines comes from cockerels’ combs and from streptococcal fermentation. Not nice for the cockerels, but good for people.

You may see hyaluronan written as hyaluronic acid, and it was originally named hyaluronic acid by its discoverers.

In the 1930s, Karl Meyer and John Palmer found it in the vitreous humor in the eye of a cow. They named it by combining hyaloid (meaning glassy) and uronic acid.

And that is how it was known until 1986. In that year the name was changed to hyaluronan to conform to the nomenclature for polysaccharides. Despite that, you will see ‘hyaluronic acid’ on medicines and products for joints and to moisturise the skin and lips.

And finally, if you are wondering how to pronounce the word, well, it’s like this: high-al-err-oh-nan.

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