Castor Bean

Spies and Neuroscience

In 1978, George Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist living in London, went out walking and was bumped into by a man carrying an umbrella which he dropped in the encounter. The man excused himself, picked up his umbrella and continued on his way. Mr. Markov felt a slight sting in his leg and began to feel unwell.  A few days later, Markov checked himself into a hospital, where he died of massive hemorrhaging.  A small puncture wound on Mr. Markov’s leg revealed that he had been injected with a ricin pellet. Ricin poison acts more quickly when injected directly into the blood stream, which is just what happened to Mr. Markov when the umbrella touched his leg; compressed gas had been used as a propellant to fire a ricin pellet into his leg! Although foreign agents were suspected in the death, the case of the ‘umbrella murder’ has never been solved. 

Ricin has since been used repeatedly as a deadly poisoning agent in popular media culture. From research conducted in over 50 countries about ancient and modern medicinal uses of the castor bean plant, it is evident that extensive use has been made of the plant throughout the world. The ‘mash’ of the castor bean plant is the waste material created in the production of castor oil, which has been used for centuries as a mild, effective laxative.
 
 
It is from this waste ‘mash’ that the highly toxic and certainly fatal, if untreated, poisonous compound, ricin, is derived. Ricin is a naturally occurring compound that kills cells by preventing them from making protein (protein synthesis).  Ricin has been used and continues to be explored as an effective bioweapon in warfare.  A vaccine has been developed by the U.S. military, but there is currently no antidote for ricin poison. Experiments have been conducted for application of ricin as an insecticide, as a chemical model for epilepsy research, improving memory and as a ‘magic bullet’ to destroy targeted cells in cancer treatment!  
 
The common, easily grown castor bean plant, an attractive, ornamental plant used as landscaping in parks is of major concern because of its ready availability. Is it a risky, wicked plant or a potentially highly beneficial plant?  It depends on how it is used.

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