Cerberin - To hell and back again

Deep in the coastal salt swamps of south India, there grows a species of tree. This tree, though taxonomically classified in Latin as Cerbera odollam, is known by most as the Suicide tree [1].

Plants belonging to the genus Cerbera are wonderfully toxic. They get their name from Cerberus, the hellhound of Hades in Greek mythology. The primary toxin responsible for the toxicity of Cerbera species is cerberin, a digoxin-like cardiac glycoside that is capable of royally messing up your heart [1]. Now, digoxin is a useful drug. It can be used to treat a whole lot of heart problems, including atrial fibrillation/flutter. Problem is, you give too much of it, and suddenly it starts causing things like ventricular fibrillation and heart block. Things that are fatal.

Cerberin has a couple of properties that make it an attractive poison. It is difficult to detect the toxin in dead people without real fancy (and expensive) chromatography and spectrometry, and the taste of the plant can be hidden with the use of potent spices [1].

[1] Gaillard Y, Krishnamoorthy A, Bevalot F. (2004). Cerbera odollam: a 'suicide tree' and cause of death in the state of Kerala, India. J Ethnopharmacol. 95(2-3):123-126.

6 chemically inspired comments:

milkshake said...

Cardiotoxic plants are a poor choice - the victim is likely to expire right after the meal, with his belly still full of undigested food = plenty of material for forensic study. Once there is a suspicion of foul play, the testing could be quite extensive.

The best posions are those that have no characteristic UV absorbtion, are quickly metabolised and induce progressive but slow organ failure (liver, kidneys, lungs) that takes few days to develop fully. The used poison shouldn't contain any suspicious and easy-to-detect elements like metals or fluorine and its effect should emulate a naturally-occuring medical condition.

Chris said...

Ah, good milkshake, excellent points.

Thank you for making them!

milkshake said...

I was shaking my head in disbelief when they first used TCDD dioxin to try to kill Yuschenko and then used polonium 210 to kill Litvinenko. This is completely imbecile choice of using (nasty) poisons that are easy to detect, are to be found in every textbook and that produce tell-tale signs.
With such KGB diletante poisoners no wonder that USSR ended up in the dustbin of history.

I was reading that at one time CIA was quite fond of using exotic cone snail toxin to give people heart attack. But it was not given in food but by injection (and later also transdermally as a DMSO solution).

Kieran said...

Great post! Love the mythology tie-in, always nice when taxonomists make the effort to be poetic.

Also, sometimes I wonder about you guys and your poison knowledge...

Toaster Sunshine said...

Maybe I'm slow to realize this, but it has recently become evident to me that the minds behind Drugs and Poisons and A Good Poop are one and the same.
Brilliant blogs both. I usually forget about mine for months at a time.

Ashutosh said...

Maybe the KGB just doesn't care if it's discovered?