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File:Hazard T.svg

The EU's standard toxic symbol, as defined by Directive 67/548/EEC. The skull and crossbones has long been a standard symbol for poison.

A toxin (from Ancient Greek: τοξικόν ) is a poisonous substance produced within living cells or organisms;[1][2] man-made substances created by artificial processes are thus excluded. The term was first used by organic chemist Ludwig Brieger (1849–1919).[3]

For a toxic substance not produced within living organisms, "toxicant" and "toxics" are also sometimes used.[citation needed].

Toxins can be small molecules, peptides, or proteins that are capable of causing disease on contact with or absorption by body tissues interacting with biological macromolecules such as enzymes or cellular receptors. Toxins vary greatly in their severity, ranging from usually minor and acute (as in a bee sting) to almost immediately deadly (as in botulinum toxin).


Toxins are often distinguished from other chemical agents by their method of production - the word toxin does not specify method of delivery (compare with venom and the narrower meaning of poison – all substances that can also cause disturbances to organisms). It simply means it is a biologically produced poison. There was an ongoing terminological dispute between NATO and the Warsaw Pact over whether to call a toxin a biological or chemical agent, in which the NATO opted for biological agent, and the Warsaw Pact, like most other countries in the world, for chemical agent.[citation needed]

According to an International Committee of the Red Cross review of the Biological Weapons Convention, "Toxins are poisonous products of organisms; unlike biological agents, they are inanimate and not capable of reproducing themselves." and "Since the signing of the Convention, there have been no disputes among the parties regarding the definition of biological agents or toxins..."[4]

According to Title 18 of the United States Code, "...the term "toxin" means the toxic material or product of plants, animals, microorganisms (including, but not limited to, bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsiae or protozoa), or infectious substances, or a recombinant or synthesized molecule, whatever their origin and method of production..."[5]

A rather informal terminology of individual toxins relate them to the anatomical location where their effects are most notable:

  • Hemotoxin, causes destruction of red blood cells (hemolysis)
  • Phototoxin, causes dangerous photosensitivity

On a broader scale, toxins may be classified as either exotoxins, being excreted by an organism, and endotoxins, that are released mainly when bacteria are lysed...

Related terms are:

  • Toxoid, weakened or suppressed toxin
  • Venom, toxins in the sense of use by certain types of animals


The term "biotoxin" is sometimes used to explicitly confirm the biological origin.[6][7]

Toxins produced by microorganisms are important virulence determinants responsible for microbial pathogenicity and/or evasion of the host immune response.[8]

Biotoxins vary greatly in purpose and mechanism, and can be highly complex (the venom of the cone snail contains dozens of small proteins, each targeting a specific nerve channel or receptor), or relatively small protein.

Biotoxins in nature have two primary functions:

Some of the more well known types of biotoxins include:

  • Cyanotoxins, produced by cyanobacteria
  • Hemotoxins target and destroy red blood cells, and are transmitted through the bloodstream. Organisms that produce hemotoxins include:
    • Pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes
  • Necrotoxins cause necrosis (i.e., death) in the cells they encounter and destroy all types of tissue[citation needed]. Necrotoxins spread through the bloodstream[citation needed]. In humans, skin and muscle tissues are most sensitive to necrotoxins[citation needed]. Organisms that possess necrotoxins include:
    • The brown recluse or "fiddle back" spider
    • The "Puff Adder" - Bitis arietans
    • Necrotizing fasciitis (the "flesh eating" bacteria)
  • Neurotoxins primarily affect the nervous systems of animals. Organisms that possess neurotoxins include:
    • The Black Widow and other widow spiders
    • Most scorpions
    • The box jellyfish
    • Elapid snakes
    • The Cone Snail
  • Cytotoxins are toxic at the level of individual cells, either in a non-specific fashion or only in certain types of living cells:
    • Ricin is a plant toxin found in the castor bean plant
  • Apitoxin, the honey bee venom
  • Mycotoxins are toxins produced by fungi. They are a common source of toxins in grains and other foods.
  • Eosinophil derived neurotoxin is a toxin found in human encoded by the RNASE2 gene. it is found only in eosinophils

Environmental toxins

The term "environmental toxin" is often used.[9][10][11]

In these contexts, it can sometimes explicitly include contaminants that are man-made,[12] which contradicts most formal definitions of the term "toxin". Because of this, when encountering the word "toxin" outside of microbiological contexts, it is important to confirm what the researcher means by the use of the term. The toxins from food chains which may be dangerous to human health include:

Finding information about toxins

The Toxicology and Environmental Health Information Program (TEHIP)[23] at the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) maintains a comprehensive toxicology and environmental health web site that includes access to toxins-related resources produced by TEHIP and by other government agencies and organizations. This web site includes links to databases, bibliographies, tutorials, and other scientific and consumer-oriented resources. TEHIP also is responsible for the Toxicology Data Network (TOXNET),[24] an integrated system of toxicology and environmental health databases that are available free of charge on the web.

TOXMAP is a Geographic Information System (GIS) that is part of TOXNET. TOXMAP uses maps of the United States to help users visually explore data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory and Superfund Basic Research Programs.


When used non-technically, the term "toxin" is often applied to any toxic substance. Toxic substances not directly of biological origin are also termed poisons and many non-technical and lifestyle journalists follow this usage to refer to toxic substances in general.

In the context of alternative medicine the term is often used to refer to any substance claimed to cause ill health, ranging anywhere from trace amounts of pesticides to common food items like refined sugar or additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG).[25]

See also


  1. Template:DorlandsDict
  2. toxin - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. URL accessed on 13 December 2008.
  4. The Biological Weapons Convention - An overview. URL accessed on 13 December 2008.
  5. U.S. Code. URL accessed on 13 December 2008.
  6. biotoxin - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. URL accessed on 13 December 2008.
  7. Template:DorlandsDict
  8. Proft T (editor) (2009). Microbial Toxins: Current Research and Future Trends, Caister Academic Press.
  9. Lanphear BP, Vorhees CV, Bellinger DC (March 2005). Protecting Children from Environmental Toxins. PLoS Med. 2 (3): e61.
  10. Grollman AP, Jelaković B (November 2007). Role of environmental toxins in endemic (Balkan) nephropathy. October 2006, Zagreb, Croatia. J. Am. Soc. Nephrol. 18 (11): 2817–23.
  11. Cohen M (December 2007). Environmental toxins and health--the health impact of pesticides. Aust Fam Physician 36 (12): 1002–4.
  12. Grigg J (March 2004). Environmental toxins; their impact on children's health. Arch. Dis. Child. 89 (3): 244–50.
  13. Vale, Carmen et al. (2008). In Vitro and in Vivo Evaluation of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning Toxin Potency and the Influence of the pH of Extraction. Analytical chemistry 80 (5): 1770–1776.
  14. Oikawa, Hiroshi et al. (2008). Difference in the level of paralytic shellfish poisoning toxin accumulation between the crabs Telmessus acutidens and Charybdis japonica collected in Onahama, Fukushima Prefecture. Fisheries Science 73 (2): 395–403.
  15. Abouabdellah, Rachid et al. (2008). Paralytic shellfish poisoning toxin profile of mussels Perna perna from southern Atlantic coasts of Morocco. Toxin 51 (5): 780–786.
  16. Wang, Lin et al. (2009). Amnesic shellfish poisoning toxin stimulates the transcription of CYP1A possibly through AHR and ARNT in the liver of red sea bream Pagrus major. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58 (11): 1643–1648.
  17. Wang, Lin et al. (2001). Optimization of conditions for the liquid chromatographic-electrospray lonization-mass spectrometric analysis of amnesic shellfish poisoning toxins. Chromatographia 53 (1): S231–S235.
  18. Mouratidou, Theoni et al. (2006). Detection of the marine toxin okadaic acid in mussels during a diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) episode in Thermaikos Gulf, Greece, using biological, chemical and immunological methods. Science of the Total Environment 366 (2 – 3): 894–904.
  19. Doucet, Erin et al. (2007). Enzymatic hydrolysis of esterified diarrhetic shellfish poisoning toxins and pectenotoxins. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 389 (1): 335–342.
  20. Poli, Mark A. et al. (2000). Neurotoxic shellfish poisoning and brevetoxin metabolites: a case study from Florida. Toxicon 38 (7): 981–993.
  21. Morohashi, Akio et al. (1995). Brevetoxin B3, a new brevetoxin analog isolated from the greenshell mussel perna canaliculus involved in neurotoxic shellfish poisoning in new zealand. Tetrahedron Letters 36 (49): 8995–8998.
  22. Morohashi, Akio et al. (1999). Brevetoxin B4 isolated from greenshell mussels Perna canaliculus, the major toxin involved in neurotoxic shellfish poisoning in New Zealand. Tetrahedron Letters 7 (2): 45–48.
  25. Prince of Wales criticised for dodgy detox product, Sense About Science, March 2009

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