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Undisciplined: The Toxic Avenger

Tony Iwane,

This week on Undisciplined, we’re talking about one of the world’s most poisonous creatures. Now, maybe right now you’re thinking of a snake. Or a jellyfish. Or a little yellow frog. And those are all good guesses. But the toxin that Charles Hanifin is studying might be even more powerful than the toxins that come from any of those animals. And its source might surprise you.  

If you thought the poison dart frog was the most poisonous animal in the world, well, you’re not alone. That’s what I had heard, too, which is why I was out in the rainforest looking for those little guys. But there are a lot of different ways to measure the deadliness of poisons. Some kill faster. Some kill more painfully. Some kill more often. And some are very, very poisonous to some animals, but not to others.

And it’s that latter group that Charles Hanifin is interested in. Which is why when he recently returned from a research trip to Japan, he was coming with 700 micrograms of an extremely deadly toxin – from an animal that people are a lot more likely to associate with being adorable than being deadly.

Matthew LaPlante has reported on ritual infanticide in Northern Africa, insurgent warfare in the Middle East, the legacy of genocide in Southeast Asia, and gang violence in Central America. But a few years back, something donned on him: Maybe the news doesn't have to be brutally depressing all the time. Today, he balances his continuing work on more heartbreaking subjects by writing books about the intersection of science, human health and society, including the New York Times best-selling Lifespan with geneticist David Sinclair and the Nautilus Award-winning Longevity Plan with cardiologist John Day. His first solo book, Superlative, looks at what scientists are learning by studying organisms that have evolved in record-setting ways, and his is currently at work on another book about embracing the inevitability of human-caused climate change with an optimistic outlook on the future.