Penn Medicine News Blog

October 01, 2014 // By Karen Kreeger // Comments

How a Fish-Killing Natural Product Opens Doors to the Basics of Cell Metabolism

Basic Science // Brain and Behavior // Cancer // Neurodegenerative Diseases // Research

Blair Rotenone pic Oct 14The last time I read about rotenone was back when I was a grad student in fisheries biology. That’s why, when Ian Blair, PhD, director of the Center for Cancer Pharmacology, sent me his latest paper, from the Journal of Biological Chemistry on the compound, I was intrigued. Rotenone is a naturally occurring chemical in the seeds and stems of several plants, such as jicama, and is a broad pesticide, insecticide, and piscicide, or literally fish killer. Rotenone was used by indigenous tribes in the Americas to catch fish by crushing seeds and adding to corralled water. (The chemical is still used for limited purposes by modern-day fisheries biologists.) Because rotenone messes with cellular respiration, fish rise to the surface to gulp air, where they can be more easily caught.

This happens because rotenone inhibits the electron transport chain deep within the mitochondria, the cell’s proverbial powerhouse. A compound called acetyl-CoA is linked with this transport reaction and is needed to make the energy molecule ATP to run the cell. Rotenone interferes with this basic function.

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