Poison Ivy : Toxic Love

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Poison IvyThe last few posts have focused on the heroes so let’s go for something a little different today and take a look at one of my favourite supervillainesses; Miss Pamela Lillian Isley AKA Poison Ivy[1]Poison Ivy bio.

Intelligent and dangerous, this lady is one potent femme fatale. Ivy is absolutely gorgeous and her body is to die for. Literally. The source of Ivy’s power is the fact her body manufactures killer toxins; it keeps her skin full of chlorophyll, her lips plump with venom and she secretes so many pheromones you just have to love her. As if that’s not enough when she’s not busy giving men the kiss of death she’s cooking up killer plants to do the job for her.

Ivy made her first appearance in the aptly named “Beware of Poison Ivy!”[2]Batman #181, June 1966. Our lady causes havoc at the museum by making everyone blind using her lipstick to detonate newsmen’s flash bulbs before capturing Batman’s heart using chloroform-based lipstick. The caped crusader is so hot for her he’s incapable of putting a “beautiful doll behind bars.” This doll hasn’t always been so beautiful though. Once upon a time she went by the name Pamela Lillian Isley; a mild-mannered botanist with huge nerd glasses, brown rats nest hair and frumpy clothing. Unfortunately, Pamela’s insane superior Dr.Jason Woodrue altered her body chemistry to be more plantlike as part of their peculiar hybrid project. Or if you prefer the film/TV version, there was a terrible lab accident involving toxic plant matter.

Regardless of the way it came about, Pamela was no more. In her place was the towering goddess we know as Poison Ivy. She emerged a plant-crazed nature lover who was capable of creating killer poisons, man-eating Venus flytraps and enzymes that turn humans into trees. While her body emits an abundance of plant-based perfumes and toxins that maim and kill other people, Ivy herself is immune. Which is a nice perk really.

Urushiol

Urushiol. R = C15H31, C15H29, C15H27 and C15H25

Now given her name, one would naturally assume that Ivy shares genetics with the plant commonly known as poison ivy. So let’s have a little look at that possibility. Poison ivy, or toxicodendron radicans[3]Further information on poison ivy if you want to get fancy about it, is a poisonous plant. Go figure. I’m sure everyone has had a run in with the stuff at some point or another. It causes an itchy and sometimes painful rash to erupt over the area of skin you’ve been unfortunate enough to touch it with. The cause of this delightful skin irritation is a compound found within the sap of the plant known as urushiol. Interestingly enough not everyone reacts to urushiol, around 15-30% of people take no notice of the stuff while in others it can cause anaphylaxis. If you do react to it however you’re in for an itchy and uncomfortable time known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, an incredibly fancy medical name for what is basically just a rash. All it takes is a salt grain sized amount to come into contact with your skin. To make matters worse, it will stick to virtually anything and remains potent for years, even after the plant itself has died. For those of you who won’t click the hyperlink, urushiol is a mixture of several closely related organic compounds. Each of which consists of a catechol (that’s an organic compound with a molecular formula of C6H4(OH)2) substituted with an alkyl (an alkane missing a hydrogen) chain that has 15-17 carbon atoms. Now I don’t know about you but I’ve never heard of our villainess causing a nasty rash so I think it’s suffice to say her body does not exude this particular compound. So what could she exude to cause death? Moulds and fungi have the capability of growing on human skin, causing, for example, athlete’s foot, so perhaps in Poison Ivy’s case her lips are coated with a plant substance. Not a particularly attractive thought unfortunately but a plausible one. Potentially, this substance could produce not only your standard chlorophyll and chloroplasts but also human toxins if the DNA within the cells mutated. In the case of a fungus, there wouldn’t even need to be a mutation. There are common mushroom toxins that would be capable of killing a human being[4]Mushroom poisoning and if Ivy was coated in something along those lines it would make death by a smooch a definite reality. But why stop at the lips? Who knows what sort of deadly toxic wasteland Ivy is hiding under her outfit.

That covers the killing part, but what about the attraction of victims in the first place? Obviously, she’s a pretty aesthetically alluring woman but that’s not necessarily enough to keep someone falling all over you. I suspect it would be more likely that she’s making use of her natural perfume; pheromones. That nifty little chemical substance that animals secrete to let the opposite sex of their species know it’s time to get it on. Mammal pheromone studies are still ongoing but they’re a fairly interesting area. A lot of work has been done on the vomeronasal organ[5]Further reading on the vomeronasal organ (VNO), a pheromone-sensing structure in the nasal cavities of animals. Given that the VNO is in the nasal cavity you would assume it’s wired into your sense of smell but that’s not the case. The VNO actually plays a far more important role, it doesn’t just identify perfumes and odours it also controls gender recognition[6]Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) findings on pheromones and gender recognition in mice.

That being the case it’s likely that Ivy secretes pheromones that make her utterly irresistible to men. Not only could she make herself irresistible to them, she could also probably make use of it to affect them in many other ways. Papers report that the VNO system controls genetically preprogrammed territorial, social ranking and maternal behaviours[7]Catherine Dulac report on pheromones and genetic preprogrammed behaviour. This effectively means if she chose to, she could potentially cause utter chaos and rule Gotham.

While Ivy, as a scientist, has a whole host of other tricks up her sleeve I’ll cover her creations another time. For now I think it’s fair to say that her natural charisma could definitely knock you dead.

References   [ + ]

1. Poison Ivy bio
2. Batman #181, June 1966
3. Further information on poison ivy
4. Mushroom poisoning
5. Further reading on the vomeronasal organ
6. Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) findings on pheromones and gender recognition in mice
7. Catherine Dulac report on pheromones and genetic preprogrammed behaviour

Ant-Man : Is Miniaturisation Possible?

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Ant-ManUnless you’re all living in some kind of hole I’m sure you know the newest addition to the Marvel movie universe has been released. If you haven’t been to see Ant-Man[1]Ant-Man through the ages yet then you should get off your computer and go. It’s an incredibly enjoyable film filled with action, humour and lots of science for me to pick apart!

For this installment of superhero science, I’ll kick off with a little Ant-Man history for anyone who hasn’t read the comics/seen the film. During the 60’s Dr. Hank Pym discovered and isolated a rare group of subatomic, extra dimensional particles; which, naturally, he named after himself. These “Pym Particles” could increase or decrease the size and mass of objects or living beings by shunting or adding it from a subatomic dimension. Combine this with a snazzy suit and helmet and voilà, a hero is born.

Unfortunately, there are huge fundamental issues with virtually everything about Dr. Hank Pym and his alter-ego; Ant-Man. Obviously these Pym Particles are rather far removed from reality and are Marvels attempt to explain their unsound science; which in the context of comic book and film is amazing. Life would be boring without the artistic license to create wonder through self evolved and explained science. The fact that writers actually take the time to create elaborate back stories and incorporate scientific loopholes makes me incredibly happy, it shows there is an understanding of the actual science. Sadly here in the real world, as far as we know, miniaturisation is impossible. Matter is made of atoms, atoms are not open to continuous adjustment in size. Their size is a fundamental length scale of nature, those babies ain’t budging. The reason for this is actually fairly interesting. Have you all seen those insanely inaccurate pictures of atoms and their orbitals? If you haven’t, fear not, I have provided one to help illustrate my explanation.

Inaccurate; but adequate for my point.

Inaccurate; but adequate for my point.

Every atom has a nucleus, and as you can see in that nucleus we have positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. In addition, the atom has an equal number of negatively charged electrons. We’re all taught from a young age that opposites attract, so why don’t the electrons rush to meet the protons and cause the atom to collapse in on itself? The answer lies in the fact the electrons don’t stand still, they orbit the nucleus. There is still some attraction but the distance and speed of the electrons balance out the pull of the protons. Atoms are all roughly the same size, to within a factor of three, due to this delicate balancing act; that size being roughly a third of a nanometre. This is something we just cannot alter, as far as we currently know.

Since we can’t make the atoms themselves smaller, how about removing a large portion of them or compressing them? In terms of removing atoms, even if we could assume that the removal would be uniform, the impact on biological functions would be astronomical. Consider your brain. The fact that humans use 10% of their brain capacity is a complete myth. It doesn’t even make sense from an evolutionary standpoint because it promotes a waste of resources. If a human brain could function on smaller neurons, we would have evolved to do so. A neuron has a width of roughly one thousandth of a centimetre, be it ant or human. We are smarter than ants because on average we possess four hundred thousands times more neurons, not because our neurons are bigger. Remove say, 85% of your atoms and sure, you can make your cells 85% smaller. They will cease to function as intended though. As for compressing them.. messy. Very messy. Solid objects have atoms that are tightly packed together.[2]Simple comparison of states For sake of illustration think of marbles in a tube, yes there is a little space between the marbles but not enough for more marbles. Squeezing the tube does little to help compress them either, they’re solid it’s not budging. So what do you think shrinking the container with force will do? That’s right, deform and/or crush the marbles. Apply that to humans and there’s going to be a hell of a lot of cleaning to do.

Organic miniaturisation just isn’t possible unless something significant happens to alter the universe we live in. Which, personally, I’m not ruling out.

 

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