What molecule am I?
Tutin is a tetracyclic organic molecule with nine chiral centers. It exists in nature in six species of the tutu plant (genus Coriara) that grows in New Zealand. It is extremely toxic.
Tutin and its fellow toxin coriamyrtin1 were first described in 1901 by Thomas Hill Easterfield at Victoria College and Bernard Cracroft Aston at the New Zealand Department of Agriculture (both in Wellington). These compounds, along with a third tutu ingredient, picrotoxinin2, were responsible for poisoned honey that began to afflict New Zealanders in the 19th century.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera) don’t get it from the tutu plant’s pollen or nectar; the toxins are present only in the green plant parts. So how do tutin and its cousins get into honey? According to New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, “Passion vine hopper insects [Scolypopa australis] feed on tutu plants and produce honeydew which contains tutin. When bees collect this honeydew, the honey they make can contain tutin.”
Tutin’s toxicity results from its ability to inhibit glycine receptors in spinal neurons. Glycine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter; when it is inhibited, individuals can exhibit hypersalivation, agitation, seizures, exhaustion, coma, and respiratory distress. These signs are often preceded by nausea, blurred vision, and memory deficit. As of 2017, no specific antidote had been developed; recommended treatment is diazepam or barbiturates to control seizures and maintenance of respiratory function.
In 2016, the Ministry for Primary Industries issued an extensive guide for beekeepers, packers, and exporters to comply with New Zealand’s food standard for tutin in honey.
1. CAS Reg. No. 2571-86-0.
2. CAS Reg. No. 17617-45-7.
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