toxin, poison produced by living organisms. Toxins are classified as either exotoxins or endotoxins. Exotoxins are a diverse group of soluble proteins released into the surrounding tissue by living bacterial cells. Exotoxins have specific reaction sites in the host; e.g., tetanus and botulinum exotoxins affect nerve tissue, and streptococcal toxins attack vascular tissue. Plants and animals also produce protein toxins. Some, such as cobra venom, are enzymes that destroy substances in host tissue. Endotoxins are polysaccharide and phospholipid substances found in the cell walls of bacteria that are freed when the cells die and break up. The pathologic effects of endotoxins, similar for all bacterial sources, include fever, shock, and intestinal hemorrhage. In sufficiently low doses toxins stimulate the production of antibodies, or antitoxins, in the host, and toxins of a specific bacterial species have been injected to elicit formation of antibodies against the disease caused by the bacteria. Toxoids are protein toxins that have been heated or chemically treated to deprive them of their toxicity but not of the ability to induce the formation of antibodies. See venom.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.