Nature fights poison with carbon dioxide

‘Evil’ carbon dioxide saves plants from another poison. Consider that the next time you eat a piece of fruit.

From Saint Mary’s University

Taming a poison: Saving plants from cyanide with carbon dioxide

The scientific world is one step closer to understanding how nature uses carbon-capture to tame poisons, thanks to a recent discovery of cyanoformate by researchers at Saint Mary’s University (Halifax, Canada) and the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). This simple ion — which is formed when cyanide bonds to carbon dioxide — is a by-product of the fruit-ripening process that has evaded detection for decades.


Chemists have long understood the roles presence of cyanide (CN−) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in fruit ripening, but have always observed them independently. This is the first time scientists have isolated the elusive cyanoformate anion (NCCO2−) and characterized its structure using crystallography and computational chemistry.

The results of the two-year study led by Dr. Jason Clyburne, Saint Mary’s University, and Dr. Heikki M. Tuononen, University of Jyväskylä, were released today in Science, the world’s preeminent scientific journal.

Their findings demonstrate the profound effect the surrounding medium has on the stability of cyanoformate. This situational stability allows carbon dioxide to deactivate cyanide’s toxic capabilities at the enzyme’s active site where chemical reactions take place. Subsequently, the cyanoformate migrates to the cytoplasm of the cell where it breaks down, releasing the toxic cyanide at a location where it can be dealt with. While this explains how the formation of cyanide does not halt the fruit ripening process, the implications extend far beyond plants and a single enzyme. Recognizing the factors governing the stability of cyanoformate furthers our understanding of carbon-capture, a process used to trap and store carbon dioxide in the environment.

“Here we have a perfect example of nature taming a poison, and what better way to learn the chemistry of carbon-capture than from nature itself?” says Dr. Jason Clyburne, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Science and Materials, and professor of Environmental Science and Chemistry at Saint Mary’s University.

“One of the biggest challenges in carbon capture is finding a material that not only captures CO2, but easily releases it,” says Luke Murphy, a Masters of Science candidate at Saint Mary’s who prepared the crystalline material for the study. “Cyanoformate does both and can be used as a model to develop a greener alternative.”

This discovery highlights the importance of applied chemistry to other areas of science and indicates there is still more to be learned about the chemistry of carbon dioxide in cells.

“The fact that cyanoformate was undetected for so long begs the question: What other simple chemistry have we missed?” asks Dr. Heikki M. Tuononen, Academy of Finland research fellow, and senior lecturer at University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

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35 Responses to Nature fights poison with carbon dioxide

  1. cnxtim says:

    [snip sorry, this is way over the top for this article - Anthony]

  2. Transport by Zeppelin says:

    Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
    Daylight come and me wan’ go home

  3. Otter (ClimateOtter on Twitter) says:

    I’m going to guess that the Evil Queen grew her poison apples in a low-CO2 environment….

  4. evanmjones says:

    Evil Queen


  5. philjourdan says:

    So now the alarmist want to poison us. The list just gets longer. LOL

  6. gary turner says:

    Hmmph! I thought the non-toxic organic cyanides (nitriles) were long well known, as opposed to inorganic cyanide salts which are extremely toxic. That’s why we can eat almonds without dying, while a bit of, say, NaCN in an acid, say HCl yields NaCl and hydrogen and cyanide gasses and we all die. That’s from organic chem (qual analysis) of 50 years ago.

  7. gnomish says:

    are they suggesting huge reservoirs of cyanide gas in order to capture co2?
    after all the talk about nuremberg type trials, maybe it’s better not to go there.

  8. ossqss says:

    So, those green margaritas really are green!

    I learn something new everyday here. Thanks for the opportunity to do so Anthony!

  9. a p says:

    Carbon is essential to life as your proteins, DNA, and muscle mass all contain a great deal of Carbon so without Carbon you would not be alive and you would be about 10 pounds of chemicals.

  10. Gary Pearse says:

    Might have said more about the somewhere it takes the cyanide to. I guess were supposed to know it is in the seeds. Most fruit seeds are bitter with the same cyanide taste.

  11. thingadonta says:

    I was always intrigued by the fact that wild almonds have so much cyanide that if you eat too many wild ones it will kill you. The plant doesn’t actually want you to eat the nuts, its an evolved defence mechanism. The ones we eat had a mutation such that the nut does not contain cyanide, without this there would be no almonds at the supermarket. (Don’t know how the wild plant deals with its own cyanide though).

  12. Pat Frank says:

    A little bit of searching google scholar showed that cyanide was first detected in plants as a normal product of metabolism by Galen Peiser, et al., (not Benny, unfortunately) back in 1984. Plants have a set of protective enzymes that strictly control cyanide, because it shuts down energy metabolism. The typical cyanide concentration in plants is 0.2 microMolar; extremely tiny as might be expected.

    Cyanoformate in plants was actually discovered and reported in 2001 by Jennifer McMahon Smith and Richard N. Arteca. They deserve the credit for discovery.

    So, it’s not clear at all where Science magazine gets off touting the “recent discovery of cyanoformate by Jason Clyburne and Heikki M. Tuononen. It looks to me like the Science PR flacks have preened Science Magazine claiming unfair credit to their publication, while embarrassing those honest scientists by crediting them with something they haven’t done.

    Clyburne and Tuononen discovered how to crystallize a stable form of cyanoformate, solved the 3D structure, and did some QM calculations to determine its electronic structure [the strength of the NC-C(formate) bond]. It’s nice work, but very standard in Chemistry. Lots of very difficult molecules are eventually captured and examined in that fashion.

    Cyanoformate is a side-product during production of ethylene, a critical fruit ripening hormone. The cyanide itself is captured by another enzyme and shuttled away into the synthesis of the amino acid asparagine. So, despite the toxicity, cyanide is actually useful to plants.

    The cyanoformate may be important, apparently, because it can remove cyanide from the enzyme that produces ethylene. Cyanoformate itself is extremely unstable, and quickly turns into cyanide plus CO2 inside the plant.

    That is, the reaction CN¯ + CO2 NC-C(O)-O¯ (cyanoformate) (“¯” = negative charge) …

    … lays very, very far on the CO2, CN¯ side. Cyanoformate is far less stable than other adducts of CO2, such as dialkyl carbamates (R2N-C(O)-O¯), or even bicarbonate itself HO-C(O)-O¯ (HCO3¯).

    If anyone was to do CO2 capture, it would involve amines or alkali, not cyanide.

    The claim looks like more Science Mag. auto-preening, touting earth-saving importance where none apparently exists. The idea that an unstable molecule like cyanoformate might be useful for carbon capture is a huge stretch, if not an outright crock.

    But then, carbon capture itself is a huge stretch, and is indeed an outright crock.

  13. Pat Frank says:

    Should have included an ‘equal’ sign in the reaction: CN¯ + CO2 = NC-C(O)-O¯

  14. Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Best not to let the kiddies try this at home.

  15. Barry Cullen says:

    I thought CO2 fixation was in the RUBISCO molecule.

  16. Mike Wryley says:

    Carbon capture is another moronic folly foisted on the innocent taxpayer by the purveyors of the big CAGW lie, the money would be better spent pounding sand.

  17. Mick says:

    Pat , that was almost a mechanism for the Rxn . I was going to ask for one since I don’t just believe any scientific articles anymore without asking for a classical explanation.
    Scrubbing CO2 out of a system with NaOH is the preferred method , I agree alkali is the way to go.

  18. Pat Frank says:

    Mick, I hear you. Much of the the joy has been taken out of science for me, as the fatuity and dishonesty of AGW have been so fully swallowed and then promulgated by an insistently incompetent scientific establishment. Like you, perhaps, I’ve become cynical and blasé about everything.

  19. David Schofield says:

    Apricot kernels are a cyanide problem.
    Love pointing this out to my ‘foodie’ friends.

  20. somersetsteve says:

    Pat/Mick…..I haven’t the faintest comprehension of what you are talking about but strangely I derive comfort from your exchanges…have a nice day gentlemen!

  21. johnmarshall says:

    Why would we want to ”capture” CO2? the planet has done that for hundreds of millions of years so reducing the atmospheric CO2 levels to the parlous levels we see today. CO2 drives plant growth, crops grow larger, and CO2 helps plants use LESS water for that growth. a win win situation. Below 200ppmv plants stop growing and die!! Normal levels of CO2 during the past 500Ma have been much higher than ours and averaged 1000+ ppmv so what is the problem with 400ppmv?

  22. Greg says:

    Great , so all we have to do to SAVE THE PLANET is release massive amounts of cyanide into the atmosphere.

    That should also solve the population problem too.

    Perhaps this can be organised for Earth Day , next year, as a birthday present offering to GAIA.

  23. Bruce Cobb says:

    Brilliant. I look forward to them “discovering” how plants thrive in an atmosphere where the level of CO2 has been raised and how it decreases their need for water.
    Then, dare I say it, perhaps they could make the giant leap towards the revolutionary idea that CO2, instead of being evil, is actually very good for our environment and that we actually need more of it, not less.
    Well, I can dream, can’t I?

  24. Jimbo says:

    Co2 is a fertilizer and plant toxin to boot. / sarc.

  25. Jimbo says:

    Check out the 450ppm for the left plant in the video then see the 1,270 ppm on the right. We are currently at 400ppm and they scream that the sky is falling. Co2 in the atmosphere has been up to 10x higher in the past. The world will survive at 800ppm if we ever get there, bearing in mind new technologies and inventions.

  26. So in the Orwell-climate fraud world, a trace chemical which by definition [see grade 9 chemistry] is a derivative of larger processes is now ‘forcing’ said larger processes and creating ‘weather’…further this trace chemical necessary for life, odourless, tasteless, is now a toxin; further this trace chemical which fights toxins is actually the uber-toxin itself…LOL. Are the warming-tards partially or completely insane ? Can we model their insanity ?

  27. jayhd says:

    Is it just me who is sick and tired of so-called scientists using the word “carbon” to mean “carbon dioxide”? I call them “so-called” scientists because I would think someone like Dr. Heikki M. Tuononen, Academy of Finland research fellow, and senior lecturer at University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Luke Murphy, a Masters of Science candidate at Saint Mary’s, would know the difference between carbon and carbon dioxide.

  28. J Martin says:

    David Schofield said “Apricot kernels are a cyanide problem.

    That news item is out of date (2006), since then the same compund has been found in other foods, guava if memory serves me right, and they have found some statistical evidence of an effect and so is being investigated as an additional weapon in the fight aginst cancer for some people.

    From a 2012 paper “Overall, these findings suggest that guava leaves can interfere with multiple signaling cascades linked with tumorigenesis and provide a source of potential therapeutic compounds for both the prevention and treatment of cancer.” There’s lots to found via Google on the subject.

    Of course there is no one miracle cure for any cancer in all people, never mind a miracle bullet for all cancers. But every extra aid in the fight against cancer helps, and nothing that might help even a few people should be as casually dismissed as that BBC 2006 article implied.

  29. Paul Marko says:

    Pat Frank says:
    April 3, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    “Cyanoformate is a side-product during production of ethylene, a critical fruit ripening hormone.”

    Thanks Pat. Read somewhere that ethylene gas was used to ripen green tomatoes for market, and couldn’t figure that one out.

  30. Mick says:

    Jayhd, Righto, calling it Oxygen pollution would seem to be more accurate since C makes up less than a third of the ttl weight. Oxygen is corrosive and combustible and must be reduced NOW

  31. Christopher J Shaker says:

    Talking about Carbon Fixation, over geological time, CO2 has trended DOWN drastically, and plants have had to adapt. Most of the plants that humanity depends on are C3 plants, which need 200 ppm or higher CO2 levels. It appears that C4 carbon fixation in plants evolved to deal with the declining CO2 level over geological time

    C4 carbon fixation
    “C4 fixation is an elaboration of the more common C3 carbon fixation and is believed to have evolved more recently. C4 and CAM overcome the tendency of the enzyme RuBisCO to wastefully fix oxygen rather than carbon dioxide in what is called photorespiration.”

    C3 carbon fixation
    “Plants that survive solely on C3 fixation (C3 plants) tend to thrive in areas where sunlight intensity is moderate, temperatures are moderate, carbon dioxide concentrations are around 200 ppm or higher,”!!!
    C3 plants “still represent approximately 95% of Earth’s plant biomass”

    From the C4 Carbon Fixation Wiki… Converting C3 plants to C4 to make them more productive under the current low CO2 conditions!
    “Given the advantages of C4, a group of scientists from institutions around the world are working on the C4 Rice Project to turn rice, a C3 plant, into a C4 plant. As rice is the world’s most important human food—it is the staple food for more than half the planet—having rice that is more efficient at converting sunlight into grain could have significant global benefits towards improving food security. The team claim C4 rice could produce up to 50% more grain—and be able to do it with less water and nutrients.[19][20][21]

    The researchers have already identified genes needed for C4 photosynthesis in rice and are now looking towards developing a prototype C4 rice plant. In 2012, the Government of the United Kingdom along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided $14 million over 3 years towards the C4 Rice Project at the International Rice Research Institute.[22]”

    What is C4 Rice?

    C4 photosynthesis: principles of CO2 concentration and prospects for its introduction into C3 plants
    “C4 photosynthesis has a number of distinct properties that enable the capture of CO2 and its concentration in the vicinity of Rubisco, so as to reduce the oxygenase activity of Rubisco, and hence the rate of photorespiration. The aim of this review is to discuss the properties of this CO2‐concentrating mechanism, and thus to indicate the minimum requirements of any genetically‐engineered system. In particular, the Kranz leaf anatomy of C4 photosynthesis and the division of the C4‐cycle between two cell types involves intercellular co‐operation that requires modifications in regulation and transport to make C4 photosynthesis work. Some examples of these modifications are discussed. Comparisons are made with the C4‐type photosynthesis found in single‐celled C4‐type CO2‐concentrating mechanisms, such as that found in the aquatic plant, Hydrilla verticillata and the single‐celled C4 system found in the terrestrial chenopod Borszczowia aralocaspica. The outcome of recent attempts to engineer C4 enzymes into C3 plants is discussed. ”

  32. Wayne Lusvardi says:

    Can anyone cite me a source where C02 helps plants use less water?

  33. Mac the Knife says:

    “The fact that cyanoformate was undetected for so long begs the question: What other simple chemistry have we missed?” asks Dr. Heikki M. Tuononen, Academy of Finland research fellow, and senior lecturer at University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

    The simplest of plant life organic chemistry eludes and ‘surprises’ us in this age of ‘environmental enlightenment’, yet we are assured that our understanding of global atmospheric, land, and sea climate interactions are sufficiently resolved to allow ‘modeling’ of the whole flam damn planet earth and everything on it with such accuracy as to allow climate ‘forecasting’ for a century and more into the future.

    Unbelievable……. The unparalleled arrogance and profound ignorance of AGW proponents is unmatched in human history.

  34. “One of the biggest challenges in carbon capture is finding a material that not only captures CO2, but easily releases it,”
    – Quote from the paper.

    Ten years from now, people will realize just how silly this statement about “carbon capture” is, because:

    Earth’s atmosphere is severely CO2–deficient at this time and additional CO2 (from whatever source) is beneficial.

  35. Steve Keohane says:

    Wayne Lusvardi says:April 4, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Can anyone cite me a source where C02 helps plants use less water?
    Look up plant stomata. They are the underleaf pores that plants respire through. More CO2 = smaller stomata = less water loss.

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