Molecule of the Week
December 2, 2013
Strychnine is an extremely poisonous alkaloid produced in the seeds of trees and shrubs of the Strychnos genus; it was identified and named by C. Linnaeus in 1753. J. B. Caventou and P.-J. Pelletier discovered it in Saint Ignatius’s bean (from the Strychnos ignatii shrub) in 1818.
R. Robinson determined the structure of strychnine in 1946; and R. B. Woodward and co-workers completed a classic total synthesis in 1954. Both chemists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in 1947 and 1965, respectively.
Strychnos seeds and strychnine were used for centuries to kill animal and bird pests, but this use is no longer permitted. Strychnine has been implicated in many murders and attempted murders, possibly dating back to Alexander the Great.
Recently, J. R. Cort and A. E. Metaxas at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory developed an NMR method for distinguishing strychnine salts. If their method can be extended to other poisons and drugs, it could prove useful in forensic chemistry.