Biotoxins: Poisons of the Natural World
Biotoxins are harmful substances that come from living organisms.
They can take many forms, from the venom of a snake or spider to the neurotoxins produced by certain types of algae or microbes.
In the infographic above, we look at some common biotoxins in the natural world and rank them based on how deadly they are to an average 70 kg (154 lb) human being.
Ranking Biotoxins on a Toxic Scale
A basic concept in toxicology is that “only the dose makes the poison”. Everyday harmless substances like water have the potential to be lethal when consumed in large enough concentrations. Measuring a lethal dosage is very difficult.
First, living things are complex: factors like size, diet, biochemistry, and genetics vary across species. This makes it difficult to qualify toxicity in a universal way.
Second, individual factors like age or sex can also affect how deadly a substance is. This is why children have different doses for medications than adults.
Third, how a poison is taken into the body (orally, intravenously, dermally, etc.) can also impact its deadliness.
As a result, there are many ways to measure and rank toxicity, depending on what substance or organism is under investigation. Median lethal dose (LD50) is one common way for measuring toxicity. LD50 is the dose of a substance that kills 50% of a test population of animals. It is commonly reported as mass of substance per unit of body weight (mg/kg or g/kg). In the graphic above, we curate LD50 data of some select biotoxins found in nature and present them on a scale of logarithmic LD50 values.
What’s surprising is just how potent some toxins can be.
Bits and Bites about Biotoxins
While one would think that biotoxins are avoided at all costs by humans, the reality is more complicated. Here are some interesting facts about biotoxins present in nature, and our unusual relationships with the organisms that create them:
1. Fungi and molds make poisons called mycotoxins
Mycotoxins are a global problem. They affect crops from many countries, and can cause significant economic losses for farmers and food producers.
2. Phytotoxins can defend plants…and attack cancer
Plants use phytotoxins to defend themselves other organisms, like humans. Urushiol, for example, is the main toxic component in the leaves of poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac. But the Pacific yew tree produces taxol that’s valuable in chemotherapy treatments.
3. Fire salamander toxin is an ingredient in Slovenian whisky
Though not widely available, some whisky makers in Slovenia use samandarine from the fire salamander to create a psychedelic alcohol.
4. Ciguatoxins exist in the guts of reef fish
Very unique species of bacteria living in the digestive tract of reef fishes make ciguatoxin. They transmit this poison to other organisms when the host fish is eaten.
5. Pufferfish are deadly, but also delicious
Pufferfish contain tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin in their ovaries, liver, and skin called tetrodotoxin. Despite being a delicacy in many countries around the world, it has a lot of strict regulations because of its ability to kill people. In Japan, for example, only specially licensed chefs can prepare pufferfish for consumption.
6. Batrachotoxin is lethal to the touch
The skin of some poison dart frogs secretes a deadly substance called batrachotoxin. It is so potent that simply touching the poison can be fatal. Indigenous people of Central and South America used batrachotoxin to poison the tips of hunting weapons for centuries.
7. Botox contains the most deadly biotoxin known
Commercial botox uses an extremely small amount of biotoxin from a microbe called Clostridium botulinum. It paralyzes the muscles, preventing contraction (i.e. wrinkling). It is the deadliest known biotoxin on Earth. One gram of botulinum toxin can kill up to one million people.
Caveats of Measuring and Reporting Biotoxicity
While we use LD50 data to rank biotoxicity, it isn’t an exact science. There is room for improvement.
For starters, no LD50 data exists for humans. That means data from other organisms has to be converted to apply to humans. There is a lot of contention amongst scientific communities about how accurate this is.
There has also been an increasing effort to move to new methods of measuring toxicity that are not harmful to animals. Several countries, including the UK, have taken steps to ban the oral LD50, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) abolished the requirement for the oral test in 2001.
Now, new ways of evaluating toxicity are under investigation, like cell-based screening methods.
Correction: Water was mislabeled on a previous version of the infographic. Full sources here
Ranked: The World’s Top 10 Automotive Exporters (2000-2022)
Data from the World Trade Organization highlights the world’s 10 largest automotive exporters in 2022.
Ranked: The World’s Top 10 Automotive Exporters
According to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, over 85 million motor vehicles were built around the world in 2022.
In this graphic, we add context to this massive figure by ranking the world’s 10 largest automotive exporters. The list is based on data from the World Trade Organization (WTO) and includes countries from nearly every corner of the world, highlighting the global nature of the industry.
Top 10 Exporting Countries
The data we used to create this graphic is included in the table below. It represents each country’s share of the total export value of global automotive products in both 2000 and 2022.
“Automotive products” are defined by the WTO as motor vehicles, parts and accessories for motor vehicles, and internal combustion engines for propelling said vehicles. This grouping excludes motorcycles and trailers.
(% of world exports)
(% of world exports)
|🇰🇷 South Korea||2.6%||5.1%||+2.5|
From this list we can identify which countries have experienced the most growth or decline over the past 22 years.
Countries With the Most Growth Since 2000
The automotive exporters that grew their share of global value the most since 2000 are China (+7.7 pp), Mexico (+3.2 pp), and South Korea (+2.5 pp).
There are clear drivers behind each of these growth stories.
For example, China became the world’s largest car market back in 2009, which accelerated the growth of its domestic automakers. China is also home to some of the world’s biggest automotive suppliers, including Weichai (diesel engines), Hasco Automotive (drivetrain and air conditioning systems), and CATL (EV batteries).
Mexico, on the other hand, has grown its auto industry by enticing global brands to construct their factories there. The country’s competitive edge includes cheaper labor and a land border to the United States.
Finally there’s South Korea, whose growth is largely attributed to Hyundai Motor Company. The Seoul-based automaker recently became the third largest on a global basis, trailing only Toyota and Volkswagen.
Countries With the Biggest Decline Since 2000
The automotive exporters that declined the most since 2000 are Canada (-7.2 pp), Japan (-6.4 pp), and the U.S. (-2.6 pp).
Canada’s auto industry has experienced a steady decline in recent years, though new EV-related investments could turn things around. In March 2022, Stellantis and LG Energy Solutions announced the construction of a $3.5 billion EV battery plant in Windsor, Ontario.
Canada’s automotive industry is largely concentrated in the province of Ontario, which neighbors Michigan, the top state for U.S. car production.
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