Making a meal of cyanide

THE passion fruit vine produces “gas bombs” in its leaves that release deadly cyanide when eaten. This keeps most creatures at bay, but Helene Engler of the University of Texas at Austin and her colleagues have now found that the larvae of the South American butterfly Heliconius sara can outwit the plant’s defences. Far from being poisoned, the caterpillars use cyanogen, the cyanide precursor found in the vine’s leaves, as a source of nitrogen (Nature, vol 406, p 144). “This is the first example of an insect capable of cyanogen metabolism while avoiding the internal release of toxic cyanide,
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