University of Manchester
Last December, Stephen Welsh (Curator of Living Cultures) and I went on a research trip to India for the Courtyard Project, focusing on the South Asia Gallery – a partnership gallery with the British Museum. Neither of us had visited India before, although we were familiar with other parts of South Asia. It was an exciting and hectic schedule and in two weeks we visited Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Kochi – so more or less each compass point of what is an amazing country. The focus of our visit was to meet with museum professionals, artists and to get a real feel for both the historic and archaeological wonders, as well as the contemporary culture of a country that is fast becoming an emerging global superpower. We were joined in Kolkata and Kochi (where we attended the Kochi-Muziris Biennale) by Manchester Museum Director Nick Merriman.
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Guest Post by Laura Cooper
I remember hearing as a small child the rumour that swallowing a single apple seed would kill you. Whilst I later learnt that this was false, it is true that the cyanide in apple seeds means that theoretically, chewing a large number could cause poisoning.
Cyanide is a simple chemical produced by many organisms, often as an unwanted by-product. But cyanide is found in relatively high levels in many plant species, including the seeds of many common food plants, such as peaches, almonds, and legumes.
The cyanogenic plant I will focus on here is cassava, Manihot esculenta, also known as yucca. It’s tubers are a major carbohydrate source throughout the tropics due to its drought tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil. It is probably most well known in the UK in the form of tapioca pearls in puddings.
Cyanide is a general defence against herbivores, as at the right dose it can kill anything that respires. There is variation in the levels of cyanide in fresh cassava tubers, “sweet” strains have as little as 20mg/kg whilst “bitter” strains have up to 1g/kg. It has been suggested that when early farmers selected plants with the best insect resistance, they were inadvertently choosing plants containing small amounts of cyanide. This means that sometimes the decision to grow (potentially) dangerous food is not a straightforward one, and higher cyanide cassava is often preferentially planted due their greater pest resistance and drought tolerance.
One of the founding principles of toxicology is an adage derived from Paracelsus: it is the dose that makes the poison. But the case of cyanide in cassava root goes to show that it is not only the dose that matters; the ability of the host to deal with the dose can be the difference between life and death.
The lethal dose of cyanide has been reported as 1mg of cyanide ions per kg of body weight, but it is difficult to ingest this from cassava. At lower levels, chronic cyanide poisoning can have serious effects, especially in people who are already malnourished. For those with diets low in Sulphur containing amino-acids, the body cannot add the Sulphur to cyanide to make it safe. They therefore struggle to remove cyanide at amounts a healthy person could do easily, so cyanide becomes cyanate, which is associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Severe cyanide poisoning can lead to a permanent paralysis of the limbs known as Konzo, which can be fatal. Unfortunately, the hardiness of cassava means it does become relied on when other crops fail and the population is already malnourished.
However, cyanide can be removed from cassava by proper processing. Cassava stores cyanide as a chemical called linamarin, which released cyanide when hydrolysed. This occurs which can occur in the gut if ingested, or when the cassava is soaked and mashed. If done thoroughly, processed cassava is safe to eat. However, if it is done by hand, the person preparing it can inhale a considerable quantity of cyanide gas. Additionally, the water by-products of cassava processing are rich in cyanide so can be an environmental hazard.
A genetically engineered strain of cassava lacking cyanide would be a valuable crop to large agricultural companies, as it would cut down on processing time. However, for small scale farmers with poor soil, drought and no pesticides, the cyanide in cassava acts as a built in pesticide and allows cassava to thrive when little else can. This shows perfectly that poisons are not always villains, but if dealt with carefully can be a vital part of a crops’ survival tool-kit.
For more information, see this excellent article on cyanide in food plants.
Hi I’m Megan Jones current student, I previously posted about a project where I was granted access to photograph a section of the extensive herbarium collection at the museum. https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/contemporary-photography-ferns/ As promised I have an update on the project now it has come to an end, after visiting the museum I took my images and wanted to experiment more with them.
I decided to experiment with screen printing for those who aren’t aware of this process, your image is transferred onto a ‘screen’ you then place a piece of paper underneath the screen placing ink at the top of the screen you spread the ink across the screen and this causes the ink to be pushed through creating a copy of your image on to the paper. I repeated this with all of the most successful images from my visit at the museum until I had a great collection, I then bound these into a handmade book using a long stitch wrap around style. Included in this book was my images once they had been processed with the screen printing technique and also some information on global warming as this was the theme at the museum during my visits, I felt it necessary to include some information in the finished project as this is where my inspiration seemed from at the start.
Thank you for taking the time to catch up on the development of my project.
Guest blog by: Laura Cooper
Whilst many species of plants are referred to as mistletoe, the icon of Christmas is the European Mistletoe Viscum album. Mistletoe has a varied reputation; it is a symbol of Christmas and druidic ritual, a poisoner and a matchmaker.
The plant itself belongs to the Santalacea or sandalwood family. It is found throughout much of Europe, but in the UK is localized to the central south. V. album lacks its own trunk and instead grows in the crowns of host trees including apple, lime, hawthorn and poplar when its seeds are dispersed by birds smearing the sticky fruit and seed from their beaks onto the bark of the host. V. album is not a true parasite but a hemiparasite. This is because whilst the seedling sends its haustorium from the roots through the bark of the host to induce the host’s xylem vessels to supply it with water and nutrients, V. album makes its own sugars through photosynthesis. A heavy infestation of mistletoe can take over the entire crown of a tree preventing the host photosynthesising and building its own tissue which can lead to the death of the host.
V. album owes its toxicity to large amounts of the alkaloid tyramine throughout the plant, which is also present at lower levels in foods including cheese. As with most toxins, it is the dose that makes the poison, not the chemical. Whilst little research has been done on the effects of consuming V. album, it has been reported that consuming enough of the leaves or berries can result in nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and death. However, the well-known risks of mistletoe means poisoning cases are very rare. As the Poison Garden argues, artificial mistletoe is likely more dangerous as a choking hazard to children than live mistletoe is as a poison.
Whilst mistletoe is commonly linked with druids, the only account of a druid ceremony involving mistletoe comes from Pliny the Elder. He details a banquet and ritual sacrifice where a druid would climb an oak tree, cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle and drop it into a cloak to prevent it touching the ground and losing its power. The link between druids and mistletoe was picked up in the revival of druidry in the 18th century and today druids carry out a similar ceremony, without the human sacrifice! The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas is not a Christian tradition but also derives from the association of mistletoe with fertility in druidic mythology. Christianity has a less favorable relationship with mistletoe, as according to tradition mistletoe wood was used to makes Christ’s cross and ever since could not grow upon the earth so was condemned to parasitic life.
Mistletoe has also been used as a medicine historically, including as an epilepsy treatment. Today, injection of extracts of mistletoe has been used as an anti-cancer treatment in alternative and complementary healthcare. Whilst it has been shown to kill cancer cells, the few trials done were inconclusive or poorly done, and the NHS advises that there is currently no reliable evidence that mistletoe is effective at treating cancer.
For more mistletoe information, see:
Guest blog by: Laura Cooper
Whilst volunteering at the herbarium I came across several small boxes containing bewitchingly bright red seeds and an equally garish TOXIC sign. They were labelled Abrus precatorius seeds, and that one of their common names is the rosary pea suggests that I am not the first to be taken in by their beauty. The seeds of Abrus precatorius have the eye-catching red of hawthorn berries capped with a black spot at the hilum, but glossy and sturdy enough to be drilled to make beads for jewellery.
The contrast between the beauty of the seeds and their toxicity inspired us to begin a blog series on toxic plants called The Poison Chronicles. We want to look at how they can kill, but also why they have evolved this ability and if the plant has any other products that are medicinally useful.
Abrus precatorius is a vine in the Legume family native to the Old World Tropics, but was introduced to the Neotropics for it’s ornamental value, but is now an invasive species. It proliferates after a forest fire so can out-compete slower growing plants, it’s suckering ability makes it difficult to remove.
But these seeds are more than just beautiful. They have earned their TOXIC label as they contain the toxin abrin, which has a very low fatal dose, reported in the literature as around 0.1 – 1μg/kg, making it one of the most toxic known plant products. Abrin acts by inhibiting protein synthesis, so can affect all cells in the body. A few hours after a person has ingested a lethal dose of abrin, they may experience severe vomiting, gastrointestinal bleeding, dehydration, multi-organ damage and death often within 36-72 hours. The incredible toxicity of abrin was occasionally used to secretly kill people in 19th century Bengal. The seeds were ground into a paste, shaping into a point known as a sui and left to harden in the sun. This was then mounted on a handle and stuck through the person’s skin by a surreptitious slap to the cheek.
Despite this toxic plant being widespread, there have been very few cases of abrin poisoning. The thick indigestible coat of mature seeds meaning that if seeds are swallowed whole, they are unlikely to release much abrin and symptoms are mild. Chewing the seed releases the toxin, and it has been reported that a single well chewed seed could kill. However, a case of a patient attempting suicide through ingesting 10 crushed A. precatorius seeds survived after swallowing activated charcoal. Except when used or taken deliberately, it is surprisingly difficult for humans to be poisoned by A. precatorius, so for most this plant poses more of a threat to your garden as an invasive than your health.
An obvious question is why these seeds contain such a deadly toxin. I have been unable to find any research on this. But it may be that the thick seed coat means the toxin isn’t a defence against herbivores ingesting the seeds at all. As it has been reported that the seed is dispersed by birds who would not chew the seed and would instead disperse them in faeces, it is possible it is a defence against mammals chewing the seeds.
A. precatorius has not always been seen as a deadly beauty, and has been used a traditional medicine. Extracts of the seeds have been used in the Pothohar region of Pakistan as a purgative and an aphrodisiac and in rural Bangladesh to treat erectile dysfunction. The symptoms of poisoning by abrin suggests very low doses could work as a purgative, there is a high risk of administering a lethally high dose.
A. precatorius‘ entire biochemical system makes it toxic, so single chemical plucked out of this network can have very different properties from the plant as a whole. In contrast its traditional uses, experiments have been done which show that abrin injected into laboratory mice damages the DNA and reduces production of sperm cells, though the long time period needed for DNA repair to occur means it is unlikely to be used in commercial birth control.
Abrus precatorius demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of plants: at once a beauty and a (potential) killer; a toxin and used as a medicine.
We hope you have enjoyed our first installment of The Poison Chronicles. You can find more information following the link below
What wondrously poisonous plant would like to find out about next? Leave your comments below.
All the curators have been out and about over half term, in Manchester and beyond! We’re helping to spread the word about our new museum development plans. We want to hear what people think about our plans to build an extension to the Manchester Museum. It will house a new permanent gallery focusing on the history and culture of South Asia as well as a new exhibition space for host blockbuster shows. If you want to find out more, keep track of our progress on our Courtyard Project blog.
Exciting changes ahead for Manchester Museum….
Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, has received initial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for its Courtyard Project. The project will transform the Museum with a major two-storey extension, a new main entrance, and much-improved visitor facilities inspired by a new ethos of a ‘museum for life.’
Manchester Museum – possible perspective render
Work will commence in May 2018 and the finished building will reopen in early 2020. Development funding of £406,400 has been awarded to help Manchester Museum progress its plans to apply for a full grant at a later date.
The Courtyard extension will create a major new Temporary Exhibitions Gallery, providing almost three times as much space as the Museum currently has for temporary and touring shows. The new facility will enable the Museum to become one of the North of England’s leading venues for producing and hosting international-quality exhibitions on human cultures…
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