'50s

Molecule of the Day: VX

VX (C11H26NO2PS) is a colourless, odourless, oily liquid under room temperatures. It is a member of the V-series of nerve agents, and is an extremely potent poison - only 0.01 grams of it is needed to kill a person by skin contact. VX was recently implicated in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Malaysia.

VX is a potent inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine into acetic acid and choline. The normal function of the enzyme is to regulate the concentration of acetylcholine within the synaptic cleft, so as to control the frequency of binding of acetylcholine to cholinergic receptors on the postsynaptic cell membrane and hence the transmission of impulses across the synapse.

Consequently, the inhibition of acetylcholinesterase results in a rapid increase in the synaptic concentration of acetylcholine, as the presynaptic knob continues to synthesise it and secrete it into the synaptic cleft. As a result, the cholinergic receptors on the postsynaptic cell membrane are continually stimulated, and a rapid series of action potentials are triggered. This results in muscle spasms and eventual paralysis, leading to death by asphyxiation due to paralysis of the diaphragm.

VX exposure is usually treated using an injection of atropine and pralidoxime. Atropine inhibits certain cholinergic receptors, reducing the binding of acetylcholine to receptors and thus the triggering of action potentials. On the other hand, one end of pralidoxime binds to acetylcholinesterase and the other binds to the phosphate group of VX, which causes the VX molecule to detach from the enzyme together with the pralidoxime molecule (see below). This restores the ability of acetylcholinesterase to hydrolyse acetylcholine, hence reducing its synaptic levels.

VX is synthesised from phosphorus trichloride over multiple steps; first, it is methylated, reacted with ethanol, then transesterified with N,N-diisopropylaminoethanol to produce QL. This is then oxidised with sulfur, and isomerised via heating to produce VX.

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