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Ricin: The Chemical and the Threat

Author(s): Christopher Burnett

What is ricin?

Ricin is a highly toxic protein that occurs naturally in beans from the castor plant, Ricinus communis  L. When chewed and consumed, castor beans can release ricin, which poisons the victim and may even cause death. Ricin also can be derived from waste produced during the processing of castor beans for their oil. However, castor oil itself is not thought to contain ricin. Extracted ricin toxin can be made into a powder, a mist or a pellet. It also can be dissolved in water. In these forms, ricin can be used as a weapon.
 
Because it is a protein (not a virus or living organism), ricin is not infectious. Individuals exposed to it do not become contagious, and it cannot be spread from person to person the way a cold or the flu can. Once inside the body, however, ricin is able to enter cells, damage the cell membrane, and deactivate ribosomes, thereby preventing them from making new proteins. Ultimately, this leads to cell death.