Manufactured Bane of Humanity: Ricin

Newscast by CNN regarding ricin 

Like sarin gas, ricin is another deadly chemical weapon which has been featured prominently in the news and popular culture. Ricin was first isolated by the German scientist Peter Hermann Stillmark in 1888 for his doctoral thesis. Since then, ricin has been controversial subject; in 1978, Russian KGB agents assassinated an important Bulgarian official Georgi Markov. More recently, ricin has been featured on the hit TV show Breaking Bad, bringing awareness about this lethal compound.

Scene in Breaking Bad involving Jesse’s ricin-poisoned cigarettes

Although the CDC warns that ricin production is dangerous, numerous people have attempted to produce high-quality ricin. A notable example is Roger von Bergendoff, who, in a Las Vegas hotel room, accidently inhaled ricin in the process and ended up in a coma. However, ricin can easily be made at home. The main ingredient, the Castor bean, is widely grown throughout the United States, having many commercial uses, including the production of soaps for its medicinal properties. In addition, various scientific journals have proposed simple methods of purifying ricin.

Three-dimensional model of the protein structure of ricin 

Although the process of creating ricin may be easy, the chemistry behind ricin is not so simple. Ricin is an enzyme that is composed of two main parts: the ricin chain of painful death, and the terrifying structure of eternal pain. That is a joke, of course. The real names are far more imaginative: ricin chain A and ricin chain B. Ricin chain A is the section that is behind its lethal potential, as will be discussed later. Ricin chain B is merely a protein that assists the binding of ricin chain A to the cell membranes in order to deliver the payload more easily.

Ricin Function

The specifics of the function of ricin in mRNA

Ricin directly targets the adenosine molecule, which is crucial to protein and DNA synthesis. Without adenosine, cells cannot create proteins and therefore cannot survive. Specifically, ricin chain A cleaves N-glycosidase bond of rRNA. This depurination reaction is responsible for the inactivation of the ribosomes. Rendered useless by ricin, these ribosomes are incapable of producing proteins. Protein synthesis is the main function of the cell, and so without protein synthesis there can be no life. The reason that ricin is so deadly is because of how potent each molecule is. A single molecule of ricin can react with and disable over a thousand ribosomes each minute.

Video about the specifics of ricin 

But what are the overall physiological effects of being exposed to ricin? Well, this depends on the route of exposure, which is divided into three subcategories by the CDC: inhalation, ingestion, and skin and eye exposure. If ricin is inhaled, the victim may develop nausea, coughing, tightness in the chest area and difficulty breathing. In larger doses, the inhalation of ricin can cause respiratory failure, causing death in 36 to 72 hours. If injected, ricin can cause blood cells to clump together leading to hemolysis or the destruction of blood cells. If ingested, some symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, hallucinations, seizures and finally liver failure causing death in around 72 hours. Injection is by far the most lethal way, since the ricin immediately enters the blood, allowing it to be even distributed around the body quickly.

Infographic of the effects of ricin

Although ricin functions differently than sarin gas, ricin is still a deadly and largely unnoticed chemical weapon. Organizations such as the OPCW, or Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, work effortlessly in preventing the production and usage of these lethal and inhumane instruments of war. Awareness is the first step and it is imperative the public to know about ricin.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s