Pure ricin vs. castor powder, explained

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks at 11:07 am by George Smith

Protein stained analytical gel electrophoresis of a pure ricin standard versus pellet from ground castor seed, submitted in a recent US case.

The above scan shows why no one has made pure ricin from recipes found on the net during the entire span of the war on terror. And it puts to the lie the brain dead assertion, repeated much by the media in the last 24 hours, that ricin is easy to make.

The scan is an analytical SDS gel electrophoresis of soluble pellet samples taken from a castor seed. It was produced by a government-approved lab and part of the evidence in a US ricin case. It was sent to me last year as part of a consultation for a defense lawyer.

SDS polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis is a common and now old analytic tool used in protein chemistry.

Ricin is a protein.

With this procedure one can visualize proteins of interest as stained bands on a gel matrix. The above gel shows a pure ricin marker, or lab standard, in the second row from the left.

The next several lanes are taken up by the result of using the procedure on the powder from a castor seed. You will notice the big difference. The samples contain ricin and a lot of other things, at the top, bottom, in between and right next to the actual band for ricin.

Those are all contaminants consisting of other large proteins and mixes of polypeptides, some degraded, some not, in a small sample of castor powder, all a natural part of it.

The ricin recipes found on the internet do nothing but produce degreased castor powder. They do not selectively purify for ricin or, indeed, do anything that changes the basic composition of castor powder.

This is what experience in protein chemistry and biochemical preparations tells us. At least, that’s what it told me. Protein chemistry was a specialty, part of my doctoral training, and I supervised a lab course in protein preparations during the end of my span as a graduate student many years ago.

Journalists, on the other hand, have never listened to such reasoning for the last twelve years.

Relentlessly, they have built a received wisdom that ricin is easy to make. And that all one has to do is get a recipe from the internet, castor seeds, and start work.

However, during the war on terror purifying ricin has never been within the reach of those interested in it.

The only place that pure ricin has ever existed during this time is in analytical labs and research establishments funded by the US government to produce things like a ricin vaccine.

As a consequence, this junk knowledge — like many other junk knowledges — permeates US life so thoroughly it is now commonly seen in tv dramas and movies on terrorism plots and criminal endeavors.

Often they make good viewing. But they’re always all bullshit.

Castor powder, containing some ricin, does not lend itself to making a good weapon. However, castor powder can be a poison if enough of it is surreptitiously put into a serving of food.

Nevertheless, years of irresponsible journalism coupled, along with the say-so of selected “experts” in the homeland security and national security worlds, have created an environment in which it is easy to use the mention of ricin to strike fear.

And this environment is noted by others. In the US, castor bean fiddling is overwhelmingly the domain of crazy or angry white guys from the extreme right. They constitute the vast majority of arrests and convictions.

(From NBC News, a few minutes ago: “Federal agents on Wednesday arrested a suspect in the mailing of letters to President Barack Obama and a U.S. senator that initially tested positive for the poison ricin … The suspect was identified as Kenneth Curtis of Tupelo, Miss., federal officials told NBC News.” Cue the crazy/angry serial letter writer to Congress part. Points off for NBC trying to insinuate that castor powder in a letter could be a deadly inhalation hazard. No link. The latter is a new twist which shows the media and committees of reporters and editors will go through some contortions to keep the news potentially fearsome.)

Part of the castor seed interest in this demographic stems, too, from the origin of ricin recipes in the self-published Eighties literature of the neo-Nazi survivalist fringe in America.

“Popularized” in volumes like The Poor Man’s James Bond and The Poisoner’s Handbook, ricin recipes went viral, first being turned into digital documents, then spread around the world.

Others have also believed what they read in newspapers: call it America’s received wisdoms in the war on terror.

And in doing so, al Qaeda, as well as a couple of other minor players, have for years shown wishful interest in the same recipes and castor seed fiddling. But no one has been able to fashion a ricin weapon.

In America, when you’re arrested with castor seeds and a ricin recipe, you go to jail.

The other feature of ricin-tainted letter mailing shows the lack of expertise, in a laughable way, of those always involved.

Ricin isn’t a contact poison.

However, it does get the attention of all and a long stay in the custody of the state.

Ricin is a deadly poison and fairly easy to make, but it’s a crude and clumsy weapon, according to bioterror experts.

A letter sent to President Barack Obama tested positive for ricin, officials said Wednesday, and it was sent by the same person who mailed a letter that tested positive for the poison to Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker. — NBC News, today

“Bioterror experts” and NBC, thanks.

From yesterday.

From the inimitable Ricin Kooks archive.

Another case in point, from ABC News. In this instance, the chosen scientist repeats the easy-to-make recipes from the Internet meme, then comments on the consequences of the received wisdom he’s just passed on:

“[Clements] said ricin is relatively simple for a chemist to make in small amounts, considering crude instructions are available on the internet …

“Think weapon of mass disruption rather than weapon of mass destruction,” he said. “You don’t need to kill a lot of people to scare a population. In that case, you don’t need sophisticated delivery and dispersal systems, just a press and politicians more interested in spreading fear than information.”

The man also delivers comment on ricin weaponized as an inhaled weapon, which no one has ever done during the war on terror. Indeed,
the only things testing the toxicity of inhaled pure ricin are lab animals sacrificed during the now decade-long effort to develop a ricin vaccine.

Number of cases recovering purified ricin during the war on terror: 0

Number of deaths from ricin used in terror plots: 0

Number of men arrested in the US, for messing with castor seeds: about a dozen, one of them recently deceased.

From “The American way of bioterror — an A-Z of ricin crackpots,” published at the Register in 2008:

It takes a special kind of American to be fascinated by ricin, and last week the latest, Roger Von Bergendorff, was indicted in the District Court of Nevada. Bergendorff possibly qualifies for an award in failed Darwinism, being the only person in recent times to have seemingly accidentally poisoned himself with the protein toxin, but not quite effectively enough for the FBI to have nothing to do except attend his funeral.

The US government’s complaint against Bergendorff, filed on April 15 paints a common picture: loser dude on the fringes of society, indigent but with still enough money to have two unregistered guns with silencers, castor seeds, a standard collection of anarchist poisons literature and castor powder – or “crude” ricin as the FBI puts it.

Bergendorff told the FBI his production of ricin was an “exotic idea” …

The ricin perps of the past few years are not the Hollywood picture of evil. There is no Anton Chigurh – the psychopathic assassin who storms through Texas in the movie “No Country for Old Men” armed with a sniper rifle and a pneumatic hand-held piston for smashing skulls – among them. They’re a gallery of weirdoes, some of them dangerous in an inept manner, but generally more hazardous to themselves. Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re damaged goods, and one can say from experience that, contrary to Bergendorff’s hazy assertion, making ricin from castor seeds is not an “exotic idea” but a tiresome one. It’s common and banal, attractive only to lonely nuts, obsessed self-styled outdoorsmen, stupid as well as crazy gun collectors and incompetent criminals. Since 9/11, every complaint involving ricin has received national recognition, averaging a couple incidents a year. No fatalities have resulted …

A self-defeating and nihilistic interest exists in the poison, as if every red-blooded, disappointed and frustrated American kook has a defiant right to possess a recipe on their hard disk and a packet of castor seeds nearby, perhaps next to an unregistered handgun equipped with a silencer made out of a vegetable. This ensures a constant trickle of criminal apprehensions and prosecutions, a process the government handles efficiently, depositing ricin crackpots where they belong. Bergendorff, like everyone else before him, is headed for prison for an indefinite period, a just sentence when considering that, unintentionally or not, the ricin crackpot’s major contribution is to frighten the locals when the gendarmes and hazmat teams descend on the neighborhood …

More resources, by me during the war on terror, at GlobalSecurity.Org:

The Recipe for Ricin: Examining the legend

UK Ricin Ring Trial finds no terror.

More on the London ricin trial.

Playtime recipes for poisons: The actual recipes from the London ricin trial.

al Qaeda and alleged ricin bomb-making in Yemen — another study in faulty understanding.


  1. John Robertson said,

    April 17, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Here in the UK, the BBC reported that the FBI had said a ‘suspicious substance’ was found on a letter to POTUS. The reporter then said this was thought to be ricin.

    At least the Guardian reported that the on the spot tests can throw up false positives.

  2. George Smith said,

    April 17, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Yeah. Hi John. This is like a very cheap remake of a movie that was totally awful the first time around.