Tetrodotoxin: Why Toxic Is Complicated
May22

Tetrodotoxin: Why Toxic Is Complicated

(This post was written for the “Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals” blog carnival hosted by Sciencegeist.) It was a meal Captain James Cook would just as soon have forgotten. The fish, an unfamiliar species, seemed harmless enough. But after just a small taste of its liver, he and two shipmates regretted it. “We were seized with an extraordinary weakness in all our limbs attended with a numness [sic]…We each of us took a Vomet and after that a Sweat which gave great relief. One of the pigs which had eat the entrails was found dead… When the Natives came on board and saw the fish hanging up, they immidiately [sic] gave us to understand it was by no means to be eat.” Cook had a rather more dramatic introduction to the lethal chemical tetrodotoxin than I did. I learned about it from a lecture in a windowless room. (Yes, I’ve linked to the original slides, still online after eight years.) That presentation had plenty to make my ears perk up. Highly poisonous. No antidote. Still kills today, because pufferfish, one of the web of creatures that makes tetrodotoxin, gets carved into a delicacy called fugu, and sometimes those knives miss a little bit of the animal’s toxic innards. We weren’t learning about tetrodotoxin because of its deadliness. Tetrodotoxin, to the organic chemist, is a case study. The lab where I earned my Ph.D. is in the business of making the toughest molecules it can. The lessons teams learned by forging tetrodotoxin from scratch, the idea goes, will be useful in other endeavors. Chemists for decades have argued about whether this is an appropriate way to train students, but suffice to say it’s still the way that most medicinal chemists in pharma get their start. Tetrodotoxin is different things to different people. To biochemists and neurobiologists, tetrodotoxin, or TTX for short, is a tool for unraveling how pain works. Researchers today know that TTX binds to sodium channel proteins involved with pain pathways in the nervous system. To those who study the cultures of Haiti, tetrodotoxin evokes something else entirely– the zombie of Haitian tradition. In the 1980s, ethnobotanist Wade Davis fingered tetrodotoxin as a key ingredient in a powder witch doctors use in voodoo zombie-making rituals. His doctoral thesis, as well as his bestselling book the “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, about the topic eventually became the basis for a movie of the same name. Davis’s results came under fire from the medical and scientific community. Another team’s measurements of tetrodotoxin levels in the powder detected amounts too low to have any relevant effects, though Davis and another set of...

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