Phototoxins are common in:
- a variety of plants (including food plants where they may be a biological defence):
- some prescribed medications (such as tetracycline antibiotics); and
- many essential oils, perfumes and cosmetics.
Ingested medications may cause systemic photosensitivity and topically applied medications, cosmetics and essential oils may lead to local (or perhaps systemic) photosensitivity. Curiously and ironically, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) found in some sunscreens can also cause photosensitivity.
Upon exposure to light, notably light containing ultraviolet radiation, discolouration of the skin (whether as inflammation, lightening or darkening) or rashes may result. In extreme cases, blistering may also occur.
The marigold plant produces the phototoxin alpha-terthienyl, which functions as a nematicide. When exposed to near ultraviolet light, such as in sunlight, alpha-terthienyl generates the toxic singlet oxygen. Alpha-terthienyl results in damage to the respiratory, digestive and nervous system of larvae, resulting in 100% death rates in concentrations of 33 ppb. This makes it an interesting natural insecticide.
Rose bengal and other singlet oxygen generating phototoxins are also used in synthetic organic chemistry. They have also found use in photodynamic therapy, where the toxin is activated by intense light to destroy cancer cells.
- J. Bakker, F. J. Gommers, I. Nieuwenhuis and H. Wynberg. Photoactivation of the nematicidal compound alpha-terthienyl from roots of marigolds (Tagetes species). A possible singlet oxygen role. JBC, Vol. 254, Issue 6, 1841-1844, Mar, 1979. http://www.jbc.org/cgi/content/abstract/254/6/1841
- Manish Nivsarkar, Bapu Cherian and Harish Padh. Alpha-terthienyl: A plant-derived new generation insecticide. Current Science, Vol. 81, No. 6, 25 September 2001. http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/sep252001/667.pdf