Joining the ranks of carbon, selenium, sulfur and 24 others as an essential element for animal life is element 35 – bromine – long considered inessential to life and moreso, shunned as a toxic disease-causing agent. However, researchers have identified the role bromine holds in animal development, even demonstrating death in fruit flies without access to this element named for its identifying stench.

The research conducted at Vanderbilt University builds upon a partial understanding of how collagen develops into scaffolding for cell tissue. Bromide, the ionic form of bromine, was identified as the trace element required to enable an enzyme to link bonds among collagen molecules.

Fruit flies on bromine-deficient diets not only started dying, but researchers also observed that the linked cell tissue scaffolding, technically basement membranes, were “shoddy” and “torn apart” in the intestines. When once again given bromine, the fruit flies recovered.

When the researchers compared these flies to a strain created without the gene responsible for linking collagen molecules, they discovered the same symptoms, cementing the possibility that bromine had an important role in this biological process which exists at every level of the animal kingdom.

It’s likely that you’re not familiar with bromine too much as an edible substance, and with good reason. It has a long half-life in the human body, and there has been a medical backlash against food substances doped with extra bromine (brominated vegetable oil, for example, and the decades-ago switch to using it in flour as a bread oxidizer). It’s implicated in thyroid conditions because it competes with iodine. As a trace element you’re probably getting enough of it, but naturally it exists in seaweed, fish, and nuts.

However, discovering bromine’s role is important to a couple of populations that are medically at-risk. Patients on dialysis and those using total parenteral nutrition (a nutrition source that replaces food by conveying liquid nutrition direct to the bloodstream) have been shown to be deficient in bromine.

Fully enumerating the list of elements critical to human development is also important as we turn our eyes to sources of nutrition in space, or just alternate sources of food on Earth, as with the meal replacement Soylent.

The research was originally published in the journal Cell.

Team coordinator Billy Hudson, PhD and others discuss the research in the video below.