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The endless quest for knowledge!

Posted by on March 14, 2014

Mark Leach, the Society of Biology’s membership marketing manager, writes on interesting facts.

The EU's standard toxic symbol

As part of our planning for this year’s Biology Week, one of our (not infrequent) office conversations recently focussed on interesting science facts and quiz questions.

Did you know, for example, that  giant lime green stick insects (Diapherodes gigantea), such as Alfreda and Mrs Darwin, the latest additions to our team, have been found to harbour natural antibacterial agents, so they can fight off bacteria that the insect has never been exposed to before?

However, the fact that blew me away was that the most poisonous substance known to man is botulinum toxin – better known to you and me as Botox – commonly used (in an extraordinarily dilute form) for cosmetic purposes. Would you believe that a couple of teaspoons would be enough to kill everyone in the UK – while a couple of kilos would kill every human on earth?  And people get this injected into their faces?  (Small wonder that so many devotees of cosmetic surgery look slightly startled.)

This then prompted my colleague Rebecca Nesbit to pose the question ‘what’s the difference between a poison, a toxin, and venom. Knowing that she rarely (never) accepts a casual shrug and a ‘don’t really know’ as a satisfactory response, I resorted to the internet, and the ever-helpful Wikipedia provided clarity.

It defines a poison as a substance that cause disturbances (illness or death) to organisms, while a toxin is a poison produced by a natural biological function. And venom? This is usually defined as animal toxin that is delivered subcutaneously – into the skin. So in the most simplistic terms, I take that to mean that if something nasty (either naturally occurring or artificially created) has been absorbed or ingested, it’s a poison, while a naturally occurring substance left to its own devices is a toxin. If, on the other hand, you’ve managed to get yourself bitten or stung, you should be wary of venom.

Interestingly (and please don’t try to prove this right!) snake venom can be drunk without causing any harm. Although it can have fatal effects by attacking the victims’ bloodstream and cells, it can be harmlessly broken down in the stomach.

We’d be interested to hear your favourite science facts – please add them in the comments below!

And let’s be careful out there!

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