ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Chemists reported today that they've managed to recreate a deadly frog poison in the lab. If you're asking yourself why scientists would want to do that, NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell has the answer.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: The golden poison dart frog is about two inches long and banana yellow. By some estimates, one frog contains enough toxin on its skin to kill 10 adult men.
JUSTIN DU BOIS: Oh yeah, it's one of the more lethal poisons on the planet.
BICHELL: That's Justin Du Bois, a synthetic chemist at Stanford University. The substance is called batrachotoxin. It's what some indigenous groups in Colombia would use to tip their poison darts. And this week, as Du Bois wrote in the journal Science, he and his colleagues figured out how to make it in the lab in just 24 easy steps. Why? Well, this poison works by disrupting the electrical signals in the heart, basically causing a heart attack. But it can also disrupt electrical signals that travel through nerves and muscles throughout the body.
DU BOIS: There are very few molecules like this that we're aware of, and we would like to really understand how it works.
BICHELL: Maybe, just maybe, some version of the molecule that is this toxin could be developed into a useful drug. There's a long list of nasty toxins that, with a few tweaks in the lab, became something useful, like a painkiller derived from the venom of a sea snail.
BECCA TARVIN: Sometimes you can add one atom to a compound and totally change how it acts.
BICHELL: That's Becca Tarvin, a biologist at the University of Texas, Austin. She studies the toxins of poison dart frogs. She says the frogs produce about 500 different kinds of toxins, but only a handful are well understood.
TARVIN: So being able to synthesize any of these compounds is super important in figuring out how they work and how they could be developed as drugs.
BICHELL: But there's another reason why it's so important to make these toxins in the lab - a lot of these frogs are endangered. It's already really hard to find them in the wild, and it's not likely to get any easier. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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