Mertz and a Purdue plant pathologist, Oliver E. Nelson, Jr., discovered high-lysine values in Opaque-2 corn in 1963, and quickly gained national acclaim for their potential contribution to solving the world’s protein shortage. Lysine is an amino acid that enhances the quality of protein in grains. They also discovered the Floury-2 gene that has substantially higher tryptophan values. Tryptophan is another essential amino acid. Their work stimulated world-wide research toward improving plant protein quality through genetic manipulation.
In addition, Mertz extensively researched the biochemistry of mental retardation, and the nutrition of pigs, salmon and trout fingerlings.
A native of Missoula, Montana, Mertz joined the Purdue faculty in 1946, teaching undergraduate courses in biochemistry, protein chemistry, and graduate courses in amino acid methodology and proteins in nutrition. He retired in 1976, and is a consultant to the INTSORMIL (International Sorghum and Millet) project in agronomy.
Mertz authored more than 100 scientific articles and a college textbook on elementary biochemistry. He is a member of the Society of Biological Chemists, the American Institute of Nutrition, and the American Chemical Society. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and Phi Lambda Upsilon honorary societies.
He has received no less than eight national and international awards, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was named an honorary Indiana Prairie Farmer Master Farmer in 1975.
Mertz earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Montana in 1931. He later earned master’s and doctorial degrees in biochemistry at the University of Illinois. Prior to joining the Purdue staff he taught at the university of Missouri and University of Iowa, and was a chemist for Armour & Co., Chicago and Hercules Powder Co., Wilmington, Del.