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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park... Strychnine and Cyanide

Irish Baritone, Ben Russell, was our guest artist for this year's Phyllis Dence Performing Arts Day. Amongst other things Ben gave us a wonderful version of the old Tom Lehrer classic "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park"

Ben sang of using strychnine and cyanide to poison his pigeons, and this got us thinking about how such poisons work...

Strychnine is a naturally occurring, colourless, bitter, crystalline alkaloid compound of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen C21H22N2O2. When inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through eyes or mouth, it interferes with the action of motor neurone inhibitors, resulting in 'over stimulation' of motor neurones - causing muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia. As it produces some of the most dramatic and painful symptoms of any known toxic reaction strychnine poisoning is often used in literature and film.

Strychnine is produced by plants of the genus Strychnos which are trees and climbing shrubs found in warm regions of Asia, Africa and America. The seeds and bark of many species are highly toxic, and seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica, from Indonesia, have long been used as a source of rat poison.

Cyanide is any compound containing a carbon atom triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom (a 'cyano group'). Hydrogen cyanide, in the form of Zyklon B, was used by the Nazis in World War II gas chambers and cyanide crystals (potassium cyanide or sodium cyanide) occur frequently in the world of 'whodunnits' such as in Agatha Christie's Sparkling Cyanide.

Cyanide inhibits the action of an enzyme (cytochrome c oxidase) which is needed for cellular respiration. When active in a cell's mitochondria the supply of energy (in the form of ATP) is interrupted and the cell stops working and ultimately 'dies'. Tissues that depend highly on aerobic respiration, such as the central nervous system and the heart, are particularly affected.

Cyanides are produced by certain bacteria, fungi, and algae and are found in a number of plants e.g. the 'stones' of apricots and pips of apples. The cyanide helps to protect plants against herbivores, although the golden bamboo lemur of Madagascar is immune to the high levels of cyanide in the Madagascar bamboo.

Oh by the way, It's 'Science Week ' this week and all of Stover is involved in uncovering who poisoned our science technician - based on various experiments and analyses being carried out in this week's Science lessons!

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