Toxinology is the specialized area of
toxicologythat deals specifically with animal, plant and microbial toxins, but is also considered a science in its own right. Prof. Dietrich Mebs has defined toxinology as "the scientific discipline dealing with microbial, plant and animal venoms, poisons and toxins" [Mebs D (2002) Venomous and Poisonous Animals. CRC Press:Boca Raton. pg. 2] and pointed out that "toxinology includes more than just the chemistry and mode of action of a toxin. It deals also with the biology of venom- or poison-producing organism, the structure and function of the venom apparatus as well as the use of the venom or poison, the ecological role of these compounds." Prof. Jurg Meier has defined toxinology as "the science of toxic substances produced by or accumulated in living organisms, their properties and their biological significance for the organisms involved" [Meier J & White J (1995) Handbook of Clinical Toxicology of Animal Venoms and Poisons. CRC Press:Boca Raton] .
There is an International Society on Toxinology, founded in 1962, catering for toxinologist and their research, with an international Congress every three years and regional sectional meetings in intervening years (see the Society website, www.toxinology.org).
Within toxinology there is a clinical subgroup, clinical toxinologists, who focus on the medical effects in humans of exposure to the toxins in animal venoms or plant poisons. This includes such problems as venomous snakebite, currently considered to afflict >2.5 million people each year, with >100,000 deaths. Information on these medical consequences of toxins can be found in diverse sources, such as the Clinical Toxinology Resources Website (www.toxinology.com) and books such as Prof. Mebs book and the CRC book on toxinology.
Toxins are natural substances, or substances produced by living organisms, in contrast to toxic substances from chemicals, which are toxicants. Living organisms producing or using toxins do so as either venoms or poisons. Venoms are toxins, or more commonly, collections of varying toxins, that are used actively against prey or predators, most commonly to subdue, kill and digest prey, or disuade predators. Poisons of natural origin, that is containing toxins and used by living organisms, are passive and generally used for defence. A predator attempting to molest or eat a poisonous animal, plant or mushroom will suffer adverse effects from the toxins in the poison, varying from mild discomfort to rapid death. Particularly food poisons, but also for a few venoms, the component toxins are not produced by the deploying animal/plant, but are made by micro-organisms and concentrated and used by the deploying animal/plant. A good example is tetrodotoxin, used by a variety of poisonous animals and by a few venomous animals.
Toxins and toxinology is not solely focussed on adverse effects. An increasing number of toxins are important as research tools, unlocking secrets of disease, or as diagnostic agents in hospital laboratories, or as therapeutic agents to treat human disease, including anti-cancer agents, anti-epileptic agents, anti-clotting agents, analgesics, anti-hypertensive drugs, to name but a few. This is a very rich field for research.
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