A single amino acid determines the toxicity of Ginkgo biloba extracts

FASEB J. 2012 May;26(5):1884-91. doi: 10.1096/fj.11-192765. Epub 2012 Jan 17.


Ginkgo biloba extracts are currently used for a wide range of health-related conditions. Some of the medical benefits of these extracts are controversial, but their lack of toxicity in humans is not in doubt. These extracts are, however, highly toxic to insects. Their active components (ginkgolides and bilobalide) have structures similar to the convulsant picrotoxin, a GABA(A) receptor antagonist, so their lack of toxicity in mammals is puzzling. Here, we show that the different compositions of insect and vertebrate GABA receptor pores are responsible for the differing toxicities. Insect GABA receptors contain Ala at their 2' position in the pore. Substitution with Val, which is the equivalent residue in vertebrate GABA(A) receptor α-subunits, decreases ginkgolide potency by up to 10,000-fold. The reverse mutation in vertebrate GABA(A) α1 subunits increased the sensitivity of α1β2 and α1β2γ2 receptors to ginkgolides. Mutant cycle analysis demonstrates a strong interaction between the ginkgolides and the 2' residue, a result supported by in silico docking of compounds into a model of the pore. We conclude that the insecticidal activity of G. biloba extracts can be attributed to their effects at insect GABA receptors, and the presence of a Val at the 2' position in vertebrate GABA(A) receptors explains why these compounds are not similarly toxic to humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Amino Acids / chemistry*
  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • GABA Antagonists / toxicity
  • Ginkgo biloba / chemistry*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutagenesis, Site-Directed
  • Plant Extracts / toxicity*
  • Receptors, GABA-A / drug effects
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Xenopus laevis


  • Amino Acids
  • GABA Antagonists
  • Plant Extracts
  • Receptors, GABA-A