Poison for Good

Part of the The Power of Poison exhibition.

Studying how poisons affect human cells helps scientists figure out how to protect, repair, and heal them.
Visitors in Poison for Good
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Thousands of toxins are now being studied, providing a wealth of potential new drugs.

Treatment from a Tree

The yew tree (Taxus baccata) is so poisonous that eating a handful of needles can kill a person. Yet a chemical found in yew bark has proven to be an effective anti-cancer medicine. Demand for this drug, known as paclitaxel, or Taxol, became so high that in the 1990s, several species of yew trees were threatened from overharvesting. Today, chemists make the medicine from other, more abundant chemicals in yew trees, or from cells grown in vats of liquid, sparing the trees. These methods all harness the power of nature to grow chemicals that would be nearly impossible to make from scratch in a lab.

Medicines from Plants

Many plants have evolved toxic defenses that protect them from hungry insects and other animals. From these plant toxins, chemists have extracted many useful drugs.

Sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) is the source of a widely used malaria treatment.

Foxglove (Digitalis lanata) has long been used to treat for irregular heartbeat.

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has yielded potent medicines for pain relief, including codeine and morphine.

Medical Marvel

Studying venoms and toxins has led researchers to many promising new drugs. From spiders to snails, trees to tarantulas, foxgloves to fungi, new medicines can come from almost any major branch on the tree of life. The examples shown here are just the beginning; thousands more species are being studied right now in search of life-saving new drugs.

Aid from Arachnids

Poison Chilean Rosehair Tarantula Headshot RM

Spiders like this Chilean rose tarantula (Grammostola rosea), which visitors can see live and up close in the exhibition, can frighten animals much larger than themselves, including people—and for good reason. Their bites deliver toxic venom. Even so, spiders have long been used in traditional medicine, from that of the ancient Chinese to the Mayans of what is now Mexico. Today, scientists are studying exactly how these venoms work to help them make safe and effective medicines. Research on spider and scorpion venom may soon help doctors treat conditions ranging from pain to heart disease.

Killer Cone Snails

Poison Cone Snail Headshot CC

These cone snails (Conus purpurascens) produce a nerve poison so powerful it can rapidly paralyze a large fish—or kill an unwary person. Yet toxins from cone snails have already yielded a useful pain drug; future medicines could potentially be used to fight epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.