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Ricin

Castor beans

The protein ricin (pronounced rye-sin) is a poison manufactured from the castor bean (Ricinus communis). Its name comes from the seed's resemblance to the tick. Ricin can be extracted from castor beans and is known to have an average lethal dose in humans of 0.2 milligrams (1/5,000th of a gram), though some sources give higher figures [1]. It is considered to be twice as deadly as cobra venom.

Toxicity and manufacture

Ricin is poisonous if inhaled, injected, or ingested, acting as a toxin by the inhibition of protein synthesis. There is no known antidote; only symptomatic and supportive treatment is available. Long term organ damage is likely in survivors. In small doses, such as the typical dose contained in a measure of castor oil, ricin causes digestive tract cramps. Ingested in larger doses, ricin causes severe diarrhea and victims can die of shock. (See abrin).

Although the castor bean plant has long been noted for its toxicity, ricin was first isolated and named in 1888 by Hermann Stillmark. Modern feed-making techniques break down the ricin in castor beans by heating at 140 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes, although some studies suggest that residual toxic effects may linger. Although one seed contains enough ricin to kill an adult human, they may pass harmlessly through the digestive system if swallowed whole. [2]. Typically 2.5–20 raw seeds can kill an adult human; 4 a rabbit, 5 a sheep, 6 an ox, 6 a horse, 7 a pig, 11 a dog, but 80 for cocks and ducks.[3]

Ricin consists of two distinct protein chains (almost 30kDa each) that are linked to each other by disulfide bond:

  • Ricin A is toxic to the cell by interfering with Ribosomes, responsible for protein synthesis
  • Ricin B is important in assisting ricin A's entry into a cell by binding with a cell surface component.

Many plants such as barley have the A chain but not the B chain. Since people do not get sick from eating large amounts of such products, ricin A is of extremely low toxicity if and only if the B chain is not present.

Ricin is easily purified from castor-oil manufacturing waste. The seed-pulp left over from pressing for castor oil contains on average about 5% by weight of ricin. Since 0.2 mg of purified Ricin constitutes a fatal dose, this is a considerable amount of ricin.

As little as one castor bean, about 0.5 grams, may be fatal in a child.

In the United states, a person caught manufacturing or possessing ricin may be sentenced up to 30 years in prison.

Potential medicinal use

Ricin may have therapeutic use in the treatment of cancer. Ricin could be linked to a monoclonal antibody to target malignant cells recognized by the antibody. Genetic modification of ricin is believed to be possible to lessen its toxicity to humans, but not to the cancer cells. A promising approach is also to use the non-toxic B subunit as a vehicle for delivering antigens into cells thus greatly increasing their immunogenicity. Use of ricin as an adjuvant has potential implications for developing mucosal vaccines

Use as a chemical/biological warfare agent

The United States investigated ricin for its military potential during the First World War. At that time it was being considered for use either as a toxic dust or coated bullets and shrapnel. The dust cloud concept could not be adequately developed, and researchers believed the coated bullet/shrapnel concept was unethical. The War ended before it was weaponized.

During the Second World War the United States and Canada undertook studying ricin in cluster bombs. Though there were plans for mass production and several field trials with different bomblet concepts, the end conclusion was that it was no more economical than using phosgene. This conclusion was based on comparison of the final weapons rather than ricin's toxicity (LD50 <30 mg.min.m–3). Ricin was given the military symbol W.

The best-known documented use of ricin as an agent of biological warfare was by the Soviet Union's KGB during the Cold War. In 1978, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by Bulgarian secret police who surreptitiously 'shot' him on a London street with a modified umbrella using compressed gas to fire a tiny pellet contaminated with ricin into his leg. He died in hospital a few days later; the pellet was discovered by chance during an autopsy and the poison linked back to the KGB. Earlier, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also suffered (but survived) ricin-like symptoms after a 1971 encounter with KGB agents (D.M. Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, 368-378).

Despite ricin's extreme toxicity and utility as an agent of chemical/biological warfare, it is extremely difficult to limit the production of the toxin. Under both the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, ricin is listed as a schedule 1 controlled substance. Despite this, more than 1 million metric tonnes of castor beans are processed each year, and approximately 5% of the total is rendered into a waste containing high concentrations of ricin toxin [4].

In August of 2002, US officials asserted that the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam tested ricin, along with other chemical and biological agents, in northern Iraq.

To put ricin used as weapon into perspective, it is worth noting that as a biological weapon or chemical weapon, ricin may be considered as not very powerful, if only in comparison with other poisons such as botulinum or anthrax. Hence, a military willing to use biological weapons and having advanced resources would rather use either of the latter instead. Ricin is easy to produce, but is not as practical nor likely to cause as high casualities as other agents. Ricin denatures (ie, the protein changes structure and becomes less dangerous) much more readily than anthrax spores, which may remain lethal for decades. (Jan van Aken, an expert on biological weapons explained in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that he judges it rather reassuring that Al Qaeda experimented with ricin as it suggests their inability to produce botulin or anthrax.)

Pure ricin could be dispersed through the air, however it would tend to be oxidized and rendered harmless by ozone, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants in a matter of hours. Since it acts as an enzyme, catalyzing destruction of ribosomes, even a single oxidation is likely to render the ricin molecule harmless. Presumably it could be sealed inside some sort of dust particle that would dissolve in water, but this would be difficult.

The major reason it is dangerous is that there is no specific antidote, and that it is very easy to obtain (the castor bean plant is a common ornamental, and can be grown at home without any special care). Ricin is actually several orders of magnitude less toxic than botulinum or tetanus toxins, but those are more difficult to obtain.

Ricin patent

"Preparation of Toxic Ricin",
patent application.

The process for creating ricin is well-known, in part because a patent was granted for it in 1952. The inventors named in US Patent 3,060,165 (granted October 23, 1962) "Preparation of Toxic Ricin", assigned to the U.S. Secretary of the Army, are Harry L. Craig, O.H. Alderks, Alsoph H. Corwin, Sally H. Dieke, and Charlotte Karel.

The patent was removed from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database sometime in 2004, but is still available online through international patent databases.

Ricin extraction process

The extraction of ricin from castor beans is very similar to the prepartion of soy protein isolates. Modern extraction plants might use membrane filtration to make highly purified ricin isolates

Ricin is initially extracted from defatted castor beans by aquous extraction at pH 3.8 to yield a leachate containing solubilized ricin. The leachate is filtered to remove insoluble matter and the crude ricin then precipitated by the addition of a 12% solution of sodium sulfate with a pH of 7.0-8.0. After precipitation, the crude ricin cake is washed with a 16.7% solution of sodium sulfate to remove extranious nitrogenous substances. The precipitated ricin may be reextracted once to further purify it.

The final ricin precipitate is dried and then purified by floatation in carbon tetrachloride. An aerosol powder may be prepared by spray drying or air grinding the purified ricin using cold air.

Ricin-related arrests in Britain in 2003

It was widely reported in the media that traces of ricin were detected by British police in a flat in Wood Green, North London after a raid on a suspected ring of terrorists on 5 January 2003. Media reports stated that a group was suspected of intending to use the poison in an attack on the London Underground. However at the trial of Kamel Bourgass in 2005 it became apparent that within a few days of the raid the leader of the Biological Weapon Identification Group at the Porton Down Defence Science and Technology Laboratory had concluded that ricin was not present at Wood Green [5] [6]. Some acetone, 22 castor beans, and poor recipes for ricin and other poisons copied from the Internet were found. It appears that an individual conducting amateur research on poisons was found in this raid.

A little later several arrests were made in France and a bottle of something that tested positive for ricin was found. Further analysis identified the material as ground wheat germ. The analytic confusion was caused by the similarity of many plant proteins to one of the ricin components, which suggests that higher quality (better specificity and sensitivity) analytic tests for ricin are needed.

Six more suspects were arrested in Bournemouth in England in connection with the investigation into the alleged ricin incident in London. They were not convicted of any poisons related crime.

Three more suspects were arrested in Manchester in England in connection with the investigation of the alleged ricin found in London, following a raid carried out pursuant to an investigation into immigration issues. A Special Branch policeman, DC Stephen Oake, was fatally stabbed during the arrests, and three other officers were also injured, one seriously.

On January 20, 2003 Finsbury Park mosque was raided by police, apparently as part of the investigation into the alleged discovery of ricin in Wood Green. A number of men who were apparently living at the mosque were arrested.

On February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented those arrested as the "UK Poison Cell" of a global terrorist network in making the case for military intervention in Iraq to the UN Security Council [7].

In April 2005 31-year-old Kamel Bourgass was jailed for 17 years after being convicted of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance "by the use of poisons and explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury". He was also jailed for life following a conviction for murdering the Special Branch policeman who went to arrest him. All others accused in connection with the Wood Green flat were acquitted on all counts.

Ricin in Washington, D.C.

Ricin was detected in the mail at the White House in Washington, D.C. in November of 2003. The letter containing it was intercepted at a mail handling facility off the grounds of the White House, and it never reached its intended destination. The letter contained a fine powdery substance that later tested positive for ricin. Investigators said it was low potency and was not considered a health risk. This information was not made public until February 3, 2004, when preliminary tests showed the presence of ricin in an office mailroom of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office. There were no signs that anyone who was near the contaminated area developed any medical problems. Several Senate office buildings were closed as a precaution.

Ricin in popular culture

Ricin was the poison used in the Agatha Christie Tommy and Tuppence whodunnit The House of Lurking Death in a 1929 collection of short stories called Partners in Crime.

Ricin was used as the poison of choice of the murderer in the 1962 comedy film Kill or Cure.

Ricin was mentioned in the "call me the prankster" comic at toothpaste for dinner

The Penn and Teller book How To Play With Your Food (ISBN 0679743111) includes a "gimmicks envelope" of small objects related to the tricks inside the book. One of these is a sticker reading "With all-natural ricin!". The book explains that ricin is a poison.


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The book explains that ricin is a poison. Ruiz was officially disqualified, and the winner was proclaimed to be Canadian Jacqueline Gareau. One of these is a sticker reading "With all-natural ricin!". A subsequent investigation concluded (though Ruiz never admitted to cheating) that Ruiz had skipped most of the race and blended into the crowd about one mile from the finish line, where she then ran to her apparent victory. The Penn and Teller book How To Play With Your Food (ISBN 0679743111) includes a "gimmicks envelope" of small objects related to the tricks inside the book. Marathon officials became suspicious when it was found Ruiz didn't appear in race videotapes until near the end of the race. Ricin was mentioned in the "call me the prankster" comic at toothpaste for dinner. Scandal came to the Boston Marathon in 1980 when amateur runner Rosie Ruiz came from out of nowhere to win the women's race.

Ricin was used as the poison of choice of the murderer in the 1962 comedy film Kill or Cure. She finished although Boston Marathon officials tried to forcibly remove her from the race. Ricin was the poison used in the Agatha Christie Tommy and Tuppence whodunnit The House of Lurking Death in a 1929 collection of short stories called Partners in Crime. In 1967, Katherine Switzer, who had registered as "K Switzer", was the first woman to run with a race number. Several Senate office buildings were closed as a precaution. In 1966, Roberta Gibb was the first woman to inofficially run the Boston Marathon. There were no signs that anyone who was near the contaminated area developed any medical problems. Women were not allowed to enter the Boston Marathon until 1972.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office. The first cash prize for winning the marathon was awarded in 1986. This information was not made public until February 3, 2004, when preliminary tests showed the presence of ricin in an office mailroom of U.S. However, corporate-sponsored cash prizes began to be awarded in the 1980s, when professional athletes began to refuse to run the race without cash awards. Investigators said it was low potency and was not considered a health risk. For most of its history, the Boston Marathon was a free event, and the only prize awarded for winning the race was a wreath woven from olive branches. The letter contained a fine powdery substance that later tested positive for ricin. In recent years, critics of America's professional sports leagues have pointed to the dominance of foreign-born atheletes in the event (especially runners from Kenya) to back their arguments that American professional running is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of producing quality atheletes.

The letter containing it was intercepted at a mail handling facility off the grounds of the White House, and it never reached its intended destination. The Boston Marathon was originally a local event, but its fame and status has attracted runners from all over the world. in November of 2003. When the game ends, the crowd empties into Kenmore Square to cheer as the runners near the 25 mile (40 km) marker. Ricin was detected in the mail at the White House in Washington, D.C. Every year, the Boston Red Sox play a home game at Fenway Park, starting at 11:05 a.m. All others accused in connection with the Wood Green flat were acquitted on all counts. The crowds are even more encouraging for the amateur runners and neophytes taking part in the Marathon for the first time.

He was also jailed for life following a conviction for murdering the Special Branch policeman who went to arrest him. Along the entire 42.195 km - 26.2 mile stretch of the race, thousands of fans and well-wishers line up along the sides of the race course to cheer the runners on, encourage them, and provide free water and snacks to any and all of the runners. In April 2005 31-year-old Kamel Bourgass was jailed for 17 years after being convicted of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance "by the use of poisons and explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury". The local residents gladly welcome the Marathon participants with open arms, and they do their best to provide a supportive, encouraging, friendly atmosphere for the race itself. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented those arrested as the "UK Poison Cell" of a global terrorist network in making the case for military intervention in Iraq to the UN Security Council [7]. Massachusetts residents are proud of the Marathon, and a yearly tradition among the towns lining the race course has emerged. On February 5, 2003, U.S. The race's organizers keep a standard time clock for all entries, though official timekeeping ceases after the six hour mark.

A number of men who were apparently living at the mosque were arrested. Ironically, the course is now considered invalid for international records because the finish is substantially lower in elevation than the start. On January 20, 2003 Finsbury Park mosque was raided by police, apparently as part of the investigation into the alleged discovery of ricin in Wood Green. In 1975, the women's world record was set in Boston at 2:42:24. A Special Branch policeman, DC Stephen Oake, was fatally stabbed during the arrests, and three other officers were also injured, one seriously. The record time then was 2:25:39, by Yun Bok Suh of South Korea. Three more suspects were arrested in Manchester in England in connection with the investigation of the alleged ricin found in London, following a raid carried out pursuant to an investigation into immigration issues. Only once has a world record time for marathon running been set in Boston, in 1947.

They were not convicted of any poisons related crime. The Boston Marathon is considered to be one of the more difficult marathon courses because of the infamous Newton, Massachusetts hills along Commonwealth Avenue, which culminate in Heartbreak Hill near Boston College. Six more suspects were arrested in Bournemouth in England in connection with the investigation into the alleged ricin incident in London. The course runs through 26.2 miles (42.195 km) of winding roads, into the center of Boston, where the official finish line is located at Copley Square, just beyond the Boston Public Library. The analytic confusion was caused by the similarity of many plant proteins to one of the ricin components, which suggests that higher quality (better specificity and sensitivity) analytic tests for ricin are needed. The race begins at noon (wheelchair race begins at 11:45 AM, and the elite women at 11:31 AM) at the official starting point in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Further analysis identified the material as ground wheat germ. Prospective runners in the peak age range of 18-34 must run a time of no more than 3:10:00 (3 hours and 10 minutes) if male (approximately 0:7:15 per mile), or 3:40:00 if female (approximately 0:8:24 seconds per mile); the qualifying time is adjusted upward as age increases.

A little later several arrests were made in France and a bottle of something that tested positive for ricin was found. To qualify, a runner must first complete a standard marathon course certified by USA Track and Field (or, if outside the U.S., a course certified by a foreign athletic authority equivalent to USATF) within a certain period of time before the date of the desired Boston Marathon (usually within approximately 18 months prior). It appears that an individual conducting amateur research on poisons was found in this raid. The Boston Marathon is open to all runners, male and female, from any nation, but they must meet certain qualifying standards. Some acetone, 22 castor beans, and poor recipes for ricin and other poisons copied from the Internet were found. . However at the trial of Kamel Bourgass in 2005 it became apparent that within a few days of the raid the leader of the Biological Weapon Identification Group at the Porton Down Defence Science and Technology Laboratory had concluded that ricin was not present at Wood Green [5] [6]. Indeed, the qualifying standard is high enough that many marathoners aspire to meet it, and doing so is considered an achievement in itself.

Media reports stated that a group was suspected of intending to use the poison in an attack on the London Underground. While there is a cash prize awarded to the winners of the marathon, most of the runners take part in the historical marathon just for the joy of participating in such a prestigious race. It was widely reported in the media that traces of ricin were detected by British police in a flat in Wood Green, North London after a raid on a suspected ring of terrorists on 5 January 2003. In the 100th running of the Boston Marathon in 1996, the number of participants reached 38,000. An aerosol powder may be prepared by spray drying or air grinding the purified ricin using cold air. The event attracts an average of about 20,000 registered participants each year. The final ricin precipitate is dried and then purified by floatation in carbon tetrachloride. Professional runners from all over of the world compete in the Boston Marathon each year, braving the hilly New England terrain and unpredictable weather to take part in the race.

The precipitated ricin may be reextracted once to further purify it. Begun in 1897 and inspired by the success of the first modern-day marathon competition in the 1896 Summer Olympics, it has become one of the oldest and most popular professional marathon races in the world. After precipitation, the crude ricin cake is washed with a 16.7% solution of sodium sulfate to remove extranious nitrogenous substances. The Boston Marathon is an annual marathon sporting event hosted by the city of Boston, Massachusetts on Patriot's Day, the third Monday of April. The leachate is filtered to remove insoluble matter and the crude ricin then precipitated by the addition of a 12% solution of sodium sulfate with a pH of 7.0-8.0. Ricin is initially extracted from defatted castor beans by aquous extraction at pH 3.8 to yield a leachate containing solubilized ricin.

Modern extraction plants might use membrane filtration to make highly purified ricin isolates. The extraction of ricin from castor beans is very similar to the prepartion of soy protein isolates. The patent was removed from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database sometime in 2004, but is still available online through international patent databases. Dieke, and Charlotte Karel.

Corwin, Sally H. Alderks, Alsoph H. Craig, O.H. Secretary of the Army, are Harry L.

The inventors named in US Patent 3,060,165 (granted October 23, 1962) "Preparation of Toxic Ricin", assigned to the U.S. The process for creating ricin is well-known, in part because a patent was granted for it in 1952. Ricin is actually several orders of magnitude less toxic than botulinum or tetanus toxins, but those are more difficult to obtain. The major reason it is dangerous is that there is no specific antidote, and that it is very easy to obtain (the castor bean plant is a common ornamental, and can be grown at home without any special care).

Presumably it could be sealed inside some sort of dust particle that would dissolve in water, but this would be difficult. Since it acts as an enzyme, catalyzing destruction of ribosomes, even a single oxidation is likely to render the ricin molecule harmless. Pure ricin could be dispersed through the air, however it would tend to be oxidized and rendered harmless by ozone, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants in a matter of hours. (Jan van Aken, an expert on biological weapons explained in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that he judges it rather reassuring that Al Qaeda experimented with ricin as it suggests their inability to produce botulin or anthrax.).

Ricin denatures (ie, the protein changes structure and becomes less dangerous) much more readily than anthrax spores, which may remain lethal for decades. Ricin is easy to produce, but is not as practical nor likely to cause as high casualities as other agents. Hence, a military willing to use biological weapons and having advanced resources would rather use either of the latter instead. To put ricin used as weapon into perspective, it is worth noting that as a biological weapon or chemical weapon, ricin may be considered as not very powerful, if only in comparison with other poisons such as botulinum or anthrax.

In August of 2002, US officials asserted that the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam tested ricin, along with other chemical and biological agents, in northern Iraq. Despite this, more than 1 million metric tonnes of castor beans are processed each year, and approximately 5% of the total is rendered into a waste containing high concentrations of ricin toxin [4]. Under both the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, ricin is listed as a schedule 1 controlled substance. Despite ricin's extreme toxicity and utility as an agent of chemical/biological warfare, it is extremely difficult to limit the production of the toxin.

Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, 368-378). Earlier, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also suffered (but survived) ricin-like symptoms after a 1971 encounter with KGB agents (D.M. He died in hospital a few days later; the pellet was discovered by chance during an autopsy and the poison linked back to the KGB. In 1978, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by Bulgarian secret police who surreptitiously 'shot' him on a London street with a modified umbrella using compressed gas to fire a tiny pellet contaminated with ricin into his leg.

The best-known documented use of ricin as an agent of biological warfare was by the Soviet Union's KGB during the Cold War. Ricin was given the military symbol W. This conclusion was based on comparison of the final weapons rather than ricin's toxicity (LD50 <30 mg.min.m–3). Though there were plans for mass production and several field trials with different bomblet concepts, the end conclusion was that it was no more economical than using phosgene.

During the Second World War the United States and Canada undertook studying ricin in cluster bombs. The War ended before it was weaponized. The dust cloud concept could not be adequately developed, and researchers believed the coated bullet/shrapnel concept was unethical. At that time it was being considered for use either as a toxic dust or coated bullets and shrapnel.

The United States investigated ricin for its military potential during the First World War. Use of ricin as an adjuvant has potential implications for developing mucosal vaccines. A promising approach is also to use the non-toxic B subunit as a vehicle for delivering antigens into cells thus greatly increasing their immunogenicity. Genetic modification of ricin is believed to be possible to lessen its toxicity to humans, but not to the cancer cells.

Ricin could be linked to a monoclonal antibody to target malignant cells recognized by the antibody. Ricin may have therapeutic use in the treatment of cancer. In the United states, a person caught manufacturing or possessing ricin may be sentenced up to 30 years in prison. As little as one castor bean, about 0.5 grams, may be fatal in a child.

Since 0.2 mg of purified Ricin constitutes a fatal dose, this is a considerable amount of ricin. The seed-pulp left over from pressing for castor oil contains on average about 5% by weight of ricin. Ricin is easily purified from castor-oil manufacturing waste. Since people do not get sick from eating large amounts of such products, ricin A is of extremely low toxicity if and only if the B chain is not present..

Many plants such as barley have the A chain but not the B chain. Ricin consists of two distinct protein chains (almost 30kDa each) that are linked to each other by disulfide bond:. Typically 2.5–20 raw seeds can kill an adult human; 4 a rabbit, 5 a sheep, 6 an ox, 6 a horse, 7 a pig, 11 a dog, but 80 for cocks and ducks.[3]. [2].

Although one seed contains enough ricin to kill an adult human, they may pass harmlessly through the digestive system if swallowed whole. Modern feed-making techniques break down the ricin in castor beans by heating at 140 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes, although some studies suggest that residual toxic effects may linger. Although the castor bean plant has long been noted for its toxicity, ricin was first isolated and named in 1888 by Hermann Stillmark. (See abrin).

Ingested in larger doses, ricin causes severe diarrhea and victims can die of shock. In small doses, such as the typical dose contained in a measure of castor oil, ricin causes digestive tract cramps. Long term organ damage is likely in survivors. There is no known antidote; only symptomatic and supportive treatment is available.

Ricin is poisonous if inhaled, injected, or ingested, acting as a toxin by the inhibition of protein synthesis. . It is considered to be twice as deadly as cobra venom. Ricin can be extracted from castor beans and is known to have an average lethal dose in humans of 0.2 milligrams (1/5,000th of a gram), though some sources give higher figures [1].

Its name comes from the seed's resemblance to the tick. The protein ricin (pronounced rye-sin) is a poison manufactured from the castor bean (Ricinus communis). Ricin B is important in assisting ricin A's entry into a cell by binding with a cell surface component. Ricin A is toxic to the cell by interfering with Ribosomes, responsible for protein synthesis.

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