Archive for Poisons

Rhododendron Poison – Truth behind the science of Sherlock Holmes

// December 27th, 2009 // 11 Comments » // How Things Work, Poisons, Science in the Movies

I saw Sherlock Holmes last night with SexyMan, the cinema was packed and we sat in the second row from the front. I watched the movie like a fan watches a tennis match, but surprisingly it was still good!

It might have helped that any great expectations had been dashed by a friend on facebook, but nonetheless I thought it was an enjoyable, action-packed, fast-paced fast-talking very sexy flick.

But then I’m not a film critic. I am, however, a science geek. This post has been carefully written to avoid spoilers, but if you want to play it safe go and see the movie and come back in 3 hours. K?

At one point in the movie they talk about rhododendron poison, but don’t explain at all what it is.

Rhododendrons (and azaleas, the dwarf (midget) version) are a moderately toxic group of plants. If you’re out strolling the mountains near the eastern side of the Black Sea in Turkey, or generally in the USA or UK, then don’t eat this plant:

Rhododendron ponticum.

Not all members of the genus are poisonous, but play it on the safe side and don’t eat random plants.

It’s not HUGELY poisonous, about 100 grams need to be ingested by a 25 kg child to seriously poison them, but it is a problem for livestock – particularly sheep, goats and cows – who munch on the flowers and get seriously sick.

Of course, if you boiled it down and concentrated the liquid… well that’s a different story. The toxin is water soluble, so it can be extracted from the leaves and flowers.

The toxin is called grayanotoxin. It binds to specific sodium ion channels in cell membranes (which I’ve talked about before) and prevents inactivation, causing persistent activation of muscle and nerve cells. This causes a range of symptoms based on where the activated cells are located, such as muscle weakness, vomiting, sweating, salivation, seizures, and either dangerously slow or dangerously fast heartbeat, depending on the dose. In the end, it can cause death.

Don’t think you’re safe just because you don’t make a habit of eating plants – the toxin is also found in the nectar of flowers, and bees that feast on them can make “mad honey.” It took out an army in 401 BC lead by Xenophon of Athens against Persia – hundreds of soldiers vomiting and unable to walk for a day. No-one died, unlike in 67 BC, where the army of Mithradates IV killed Pompey the Great’s soldiers while they were incapacitated. It’s biological warfare, victory has never tasted sweeter.

Mad honey is still a problem today – not so much the stuff in a grocery store (which is diluted and problem tested and stuff) but organic honey direct from the beehive can be risky. Plus some men use it as an aphrodisiac. Idiots.

That’s the rhododendron poison, making a comeback after 2400 years on a big screen near you! What did you think of the movie? There were lots of sciencey deductions made that weren’t very well explained, so if you have any questions, post a comment and I’ll do me best!

“It tastes like burning!” How (and why) chili brings the heat

// December 21st, 2009 // 2 Comments » // How Things Work, Poisons, Science at Home

Capsaicin Necklace

Last night I made spicy Dhall for dinner, because lentils and peas may be high in protein, but they’re also really lame. I used a recipe from an old English cookbook from the 70’s with all pounds and ounces. Couldn’t be bothered converting stuff, so I made it up along the way. Hell, that’s the only way to cook. Here’s a quick recipe.

That this will make a vegetarian high protein meal that doesn’t taste like boredom.

1. Boil lentils or split peas or whatever in water until soft.
2. Melt 50 g of butter and cook an onion, a chili and some cumin, coriandar and cinnamon in a separate pan.
3. Combine the shizz in both the pans together with a can o’ tomatoes and add spices till it tastes good.

It took a bit of experimenting spice-wise to get it nummy, but the final result supported my hypothesis. There was much noms.

During the cooking process I had to remove the chili seeds and membranes ‘cos that’s the done thing, and the whole “delicately extract with a knife” thing really wasn’t working for me (I prefer the roughly stabbing kind of knifery) so I just took it out with my fingers. Big mistake. They were burning all night. As I laid in my bed and cried “WHY?” I wondered “why?” What’s the SCIENCE?

The one responsible for the ouchy-pain is a long guy called capsaicin (and a few of his brothers), mainly found in the membranes around the seeds. It’s flavourless and works by activating pain receptors in nerves, specifically the receptor TRPV1 which usually opens at temperatures above 43 C. Opening causes positive ions to enter en masse, causing the membrane to depolarise and the neuron to fire, discussed here in Frankensteiny detail. There are loads of different pain receptors in your body – each one triggers at a different temperature or pressure. Some are linked directly to motor nerves, so you can react to a hot pan by pulling your hand away faster than you’re brain can say “Ow!”. When you have some chili (or get it all over your skin like I did) your nerve cells actually think you’re on fire.

Making big molecules like capsaicin is a pain in the ass, so there has to be a butt-kicking reason to do it or plants wouldn’t bother. Even if they liked it spicy like Cartmans hand.

My name is Jennifer Lopez I eat tacos y burritos

The heat of a hot chili doesn’t stop humans eating it (quite the contrary), but a mouse or a cow might be less inclined to munch a bunch once they’d tried some. That’s good, because herbivores are fond of chewing things which destroys the seeds. Birds are unaffected by capsaicin and can happily eat chili peppers all the time, good for the plant again – birds aren’t great at chewing, but they are VERY good at flying around and crapping out seeds.

Capsaicin is also an antifungal and antibacterial, and protects the plant with it’s awesome microbe fighting power. It also protects your curry from the evils of mould and might even impart some health benefits. The molecule keeps shape at high temperatures, which is why you can cook the hell out of a curry and it will still taste spicy. It doesn’t dissolve in water, so you’re better off drinking milk if you feel the burn, casein protein acts like a detergent and captures the chili into small ineffective globs. I guess drinking soap would work too, but milk is probably tastier. Ever tried soap? (Some smell so good I can’t resist. You’d think I would know better by now.)

This post would not be complete without a plea for someone to send me chili chocolate icecream. I had it once and I must have it again! The search will never cease until I am in it’s hot chocolatey frozen embrace once again. Seriously, have you ever tried it? It’s the spiciest thing I’ve ever had and paradox in a waffle cone.

Effects of Alcohol – Why You Shouldn’t Drink on an Empty Stomach

// November 9th, 2009 // 9 Comments » // How Things Work, Poisons

Everyone knows you’re supposed to eat something “to line the stomach” before you hit the town, but why is that?

Alcohol is pretty volatile, around 5% of what you drink is expelled through the lungs. It’s why you can smell alcohol on someone’s breath, and it’s how breath testers work. Breathalysers just take advantage of the fact that there is a constant ratio of 1:2300 between the amount of alcohol exhaled and blood alcohol level.

The rest of the alcohol is broken down in a three step process.

1. Alcohol dehydrogenase converts alcohol to acetadehyde with the help of coenzyme NAD. This is the rate-limiting step in the metabolism of alcohol, and the reason you can only metabolise about one standard drink an hour.

2. Aldehyde dehydrogenase converts the aldehyde to acetic acid (vinegar.)

3. Acetic acid is broken down into carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy. This energy, along with the molecules of NADH that are produced along the way, is the reason alcohol is high in calories.

This be a rare example of zero-order metabolism, meaning that it doesn’t get faster when there’s more alcohol. It’s probably due to the small amount of enzyme (or the coenzyme) in that first step becoming saturated after only a small amount of alcohol.

So why do they say you shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach? It all comes back to that nifty enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase. 85% of the metabolism happens in the liver (that be why liver disease is common ‘mongst alcoholics) and 15% happens in the stomach where the enzyme is present in the lining. It breaks down the alcohol before it can even enter your bloodstream!

Drinking anything on an empty stomach causes rapid gastric emptying, reducing the time the alcohol is exposed to the alcohol dehydrogenase in your stomach lining. Rapid emptying means that the alcohol hits your bloodstream faster and in greater concentration, resulting in a state of inebriation that is more ass than class.

Women have about 50% less gastric alcohol dehydrogenase than men, one of three reasons that women have higher blood alcohol levels than men after the same number of drinks. The other two being that men have more muscle, which has lots of blood vessels giving the alcohol more space to dilute in, and women have more body fat, which does not soak up alcohol and therefore concentrates it in the blood.

So ’tis true indeed that you should eat well before a night of drinking. I myself have conducted extensive experiments on this matter (in the name of science), and never have I been drunker than at my pirate-themed 21st, which I attribute to my skipping dinner that night. Although the two for one cocktail hour probably didn’t help.


// October 26th, 2009 // 4 Comments » // Drugs, How Things Work, Poisons, The Realm of Bizzare

Halloween is on the horizon. Today’s post is on the science of Zombies. Because Zombies, apparently, exist. In Haiti.


Haiti is located in the Caribbean, near Jamaica and Cuba. Ah… the Caribbean… Anyway, this story is not about cocktails served in coconuts with little umbrellas on the side. It’s more about mind control.

The guy mainly credited with this discovery is Wade Davis, who wrote two books on the subject The Serpent and the Rainbow, a bit of an adventure, Indiana Jones wannabe read and Passage of Darkness, a more scientific work. Davis went on location at Haiti, which has voodoo as part of their religion, and found evidence that zombies really exist – having met a man called Clairvius Narcisse whose death was reported in 1962 by hospital staff, and 18 years later claimed to be an escaped zombie.

Davis managed to get his hands on some ‘zombie powder’ by bribing some informants. The powder was found to have toxins from a variety of natural sources: Bufotoxin from toads, a neurotoxin released on the skin, and the reason why toad-licking can be psychedelic. Also the reason why many princesses took to kissing frogs to find a prince, in my opinion; and puffer fish venom – tetrodotoxin, which can cause muscle paralysis, low blood pressure, and a pseudocomatose effect, and which always reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Homer thinks he’s going to die because he ate puffer fish at a sushi restaurant.

Puffer fish Bufo alvarius

However, the amount of toxins in each of the samples Davis gathered varied wildly, and often the amounts were so trace as they would scarcely have any effect at all. Not to mention, getting the amount of toxins correct to make someone enter a death-like state without actually dying would be an extraordinary feat. We do a similar thing with anesthetics, but natural products tend to vary the concentration of toxin they have plant-to-plant (or toad-to-toad in this case) so getting it right would be trickier than teaching your parrot to swim. Davis’ answer to this is psychobiological – the idea that psychoactive drugs are effective not only because of what they do on a biological level, but also because of what we expect them to do and the cultural influences around us. If someone thinks a little bit of alcohol will make them giggly and relaxed, then they’ll giggle their way out of a goose egg after a mere drop of rum. In this case, if you think a powder is going to knock you out and make you appear dead, if you really BELIEVE it, then maybe it works even if the quantity of drug is a little low. It’s like the placebo effect, except with zombies.

Following the death-like state, the zombie is revived and kept in a submissive state by being given Datura stramonium, aka the Zombie Cucumber. Datura is both highly poisonous (NOT a party drug!) and psychoactive, and due to a mixture of toxins it contains it can cause severe anticholinergic delirium – read ‘off your face, probably in a bad way’. Again, part of the effects are probably due to mind and cultural influences. If someone just almost died, and then is given Datura and treated like a zombie – well that’s a pretty bad trip!


However, let me point out that if there are zombies as Davis suggests, there are not very many of them, and they don’t eat brains. Davis believed zombies either worked a farm as cheap labour, or more likely are turned into zombies by a Bokor (like a voodoo high priest) as an extreme form of punishment similar to a death sentence used by a secret society in Haiti called the Bizango. It’s interesting to note that creating a zombie in Haiti is considered illegal, and if a body is buried it is considered murder, whether the person dies or not. Good to know the law is on the side of the undead.

In essence, zombification may exist as a form of punishment by voodoo believers, and involves a seriously dangerous drug cocktail (not the kind served with a paper umbrella) whose action is probably assisted by mental and cultural influences. Turning people into zombies is against the law in Haiti, and totally not cool anywhere. Cross me and I might make you walk the plank, but I won’t turn you into no brain-craving undead.


The Buzz about Nanobees

// September 1st, 2009 // 4 Comments » // Poisons, Recent Research

I can killz cancer
Nanobee shown at one zillion times magnification.

Bee toxin sucks, in my opinion. As a young lass I was always scanning the grasses for bees whenever we reached the port. I was quite allergic to them – a sting would leave my foot hugely swollen and painful, and I am significantly better at hopping on my left leg as a result of being stung on my right foot. As I grew older and was stung a few more times, the allergy gradually disappeared and now a sting causes nothing but a bit of pain, and a fierce anger at the entomological world.

Perhaps it is time to let this anger abate, as bee venom may become another warrior in the fight against cancer. Crew, meet Melitten. Melitten, Crew.


Melitten is the major component of bee venom, making up over half of the juices in the sting. It is an anti-inflammatory agent and causes the body to release cortisol, the stress hormone. It’s also cell-lytic, which means that it pokes holes in cells and they leak EVERYWHERE and then die. As you may have noticed, it’s a peptide, and the amino acid sequence is GIGAVLKVLTTGLPALISWIKRKRQQ. That’s 26 amino acids of pain.

It’s the cell-lytic part that’s useful, because it’s really not fussy WHAT it breaks apart. If it has a membrane, Melitten is there and filling it more full of holes than a gangster with a semi-automatic. It can be used as an antibacterial or antifungal, plus as an anticancer agent.

To maximise the “anticancer” part and minimise the “attacking the rest of your body” side-effects, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have put the toxin onto little nanoballs of perfluorocarbon, which protects it from degradation in the body. By attaching tumour-specific bits and pieces to the nanoball as well, it is more likely to deposit the Melitten load at the site of the cancer, particularly as tumours often have leaky blood vessels. Perfluorocarbon is not new in biomedical science – it is sometimes used in eye surgery, and is an element in artificial blood.

Mouse trials have been successful. You can read more about the nanobees here.

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