Cure that Poisoning with an Extract from Another Poisonous Thing

Toxicology fascinates me.  Some years back The National Geographic Magazine had a lovely article about toxins and their study and since them I have found great interest in the ways in which nature and the environment can poison us (sure, kind of morbid, I know, but still totally fascinating).

Of particular interest to me this morning, is the toxin muscarine.  For those in the know, muscarine is a toxin found in many species of mushrooms, and behind amatoxins (named after the Amanita genus) is probably one of the most responsible chemicals for sever mushroom poisonings.

interestingly, muscarine was actually first isolated from an amanita, specifically Amanita muscaria, aka the fly agaric. Of further interest is the fact that the prominent toxin in A. muscaria is neither an amatoxin nor muscarine, but instead muscimol a powerful, and potentially deadly, hallucinogenic chemical. Please note: consuming A. muscaria can cause sever poisoning, while fatalities are very rare, they have occurred, so basically, “DON’T EAT THEM!”). Probably the best known (and most dangerous) mushroom to contain muscarine is the Clitocybe dealbata aka ivory funnel or sweating mushroom.  This mushroom has a high potential to be dangerous partially because it contains potentially deadly levels of muscarine, but additionally because it is a relatively common lawn mushroom that the uninformed might easily mistake for an edible species (hence the importance of 100% certain IDing before consuming any wild mushroom).

What has interested me most about muscarine, is that the main chemical that is used to combat its toxic effects is atropine which itself is extracted from such tellingly named plants like the Deadly Nightshade (also Thorn Apple and Mandrake, all poisonous members of the Solanacea family).  So basically, dealing with the poisoning effects of one chemical requires using chemicals from other poisonous things. 

This is actually quite common, and the general sentiment that “too much of anything is essentially poisonous” should be well noted.  Many toxic chemicals from plants, animals, and fungi have potential beneficial uses at the right dosage, it is simply that not too much of any of these are needed to produce severe, if not deadly reaction (take for example the venom of the Black Widow spider, which is incredibly potent, and the only reason more people don’t die from bites is because the spider’s fangs are so small and deliver such a minute dose).  Learning about the effects of toxins is thus an incredibly import field of study, as the benefits they may produce could be helpful in dealing with all sorts of human ailments.

It is easy to be scared of, or deem evil, those things that can poisonous.  I certain degree of caution is well served, as being aware and educated is the best means of avoiding problematic situations.  However in the case of plants, animals, and fungi that are venomous/poisonous (note: venom is injected by some means, whereas poison is consumed and/or absorbed.  However both refer to toxins) I prefer to be impressed by the skilled evolutionary means for survival.  These living things have their toxic properties because it works at helping them survive.  With a little respect, a bit of caution, and a healthy appreciation, we can view our toxic natural world with wonder, and maybe even find some use for it.

~ by Nathaniel on June 1, 2012.

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