The story straight out of ‘The barn film’, On September 7th, 1978, Bulgarian journalist Georgi Marov, communist defector working for the BBC was walking across the water-loop bridge in London when he felt a slight sting in his right thigh. He looked behind him and saw a man picking an umbrella off the ground. By that evening, he had developed a fever. Four days later he was dead. The cause of death was poisoning. Markov has been assassinated using an umbrella rig to fire a pellet laced with one of the most powerful natural toxins in the world, ricin.
Ricin is one of the most natural deadliest substances that is not found in an animal. It’s found in the beans of the castor plant. Just 500 micrograms of this ricin i.e. what 5-10 thousands of what paperclips weighs, is enough to kill a man. It is close enough to being most poisonous natural substance in earth that lurk in bacteria, plant, fungi all over the place and they’re not just found in exotic tropical locality or in just 1970’s.
They are pretty much found every-where however; they are there for good reasons. What is it about their chemical make-up that makes them so poisonous? How do their toxins attack the human body with such deadly efficiency?
Not only it’s the most deadly poisonous natural substance in the earth, it is almost nearly impossible. There are a lot of plants, fungi and bacteria that are capable of killing you if eaten, inhaled or injected.
There are also a lot of variables that are hard to quantify exactly how poisonous something is.
Everything from the age of the victim to the anti-bodies in your system can affect how potent a substance is. There is however one exception. No one disputes that the most lethal toxic substance known to man natural or otherwise is produced by the tiny bacteria Clostridium Botulinum.
You probably know it by the disease it causes, botulism. Just how deadly is the Botulinum toxin, one way experts used to measure the lethality of the poison is Lethal dose-50%, which is the dose required to kill half the members of the tested population.
Since for the obvious reasons you can’t run these test on humans, toxicologist usually give these numbers often called the LD-50, by using in endlessly unfortunate creature the laboratory mouse. LD-50 is measured in the ratio of milligrams of toxin to the kilograms of body weight. And in case of botulinum toxin, one Nano gram, a billionth of gram per kilogram, that means the crystal of botulinum i.e, the size of the grain of sand would be enough to kill 9,600 people.
The bacteria are actually really common and the spores they produce are found in soil, water and all over the world. The problem starts when they germinates into active cells at which point they began to produce seven different toxins, four of which are deadly to humans.
Botulinum thrives in low oxygen environments and the 10-30 cases reported in United States are usually the results of eating the improperly canned foods. Since canning removes oxygen from food to preserve it. But if the food isn’t heated properly, the spores can stick around and affect the food. These spores can also be found in honey and if you eat them, they can find the nice oxygen free nook of your body they hang out in. Kids and adults can ward off these spores before they germinate but infants cannot, which is why babies under 12 months should never eat honey.
The spore is poisonous because they produce a neurotoxin as waste product. It works by blocking a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which controls muscle contraction that effectively makes the body go limp within several days. Without antitoxin, the victim will asphyxiate from the inability to breathe.
But thanks to science and all of those poor lab mice, there is an antitoxin. But why in the name of Mathieu Orfila, would bacteria move out to far deadly as poison on earth into its host? The answer remains as mystery.
One theory is that the toxins are not aimed at the host but rather at competitor bacteria. They create condition where benign bacteria cannot survive giving the evil bacteria a chance to spread. The host, in this case a human is often in just the way of this process. So compared to the botulinum toxin, cyanide is like eating pelado. Well, not really, don’t eat cyanide, not only will it kill your face, it is also one of the most rapidly acting poisons in the world.
Found in cigarette smoke, burning plastics, also surprising number of natural foods like almonds and the seeds of apricots and apples, the LD-50 of sodium-cyanide are common form in 6.4 milligrams per kilogram of body weight and are over 6-millon times less deadly than botulinum. That said, it’s been an effective and popular tool of death for everyone from emperor nearer to Agatha Christe (the best-selling author of all times).
Cyanide is a carbon atom triple bonded to nitrogen atom. What makes it such a fast killer is that it binds to protein in your cell or mitochondria, the tiny power-plants that keep your cells going, keeps them from using oxygen basically asphyxiating the body at a cellular level.
It is true that some fruits and nuts contain cyanide, apple seeds for instance that contain the chemical that release cyanide when it comes into contact with digestive enzymes but there is not enough of them to poison or kill them or us.
The good news is that if you happen to suffer from cyanide poisoning, there is always vitamin B-12. The B-12 that you get at the store actually contains cyanide as a part of its gloriously complex molecular structure. So high dose of a precursor to the vitamins can literally pull the cyanide off of your poisoned mitochondria and then you just pee out the poison in the form of B-12.
Now back to our Bulgarian friend, the castor plant that killed him is next on our list. It’s native to Africa but it’s pretty much found anywhere its warm including the South-West on United States.
The toxin it produces, ricin is the form of protein found in the castor bean but the poison is itself made from the mashes left over after grinding the beans into oil. When the oil is heated, the ricin protein gets denatured or changes shape which renders it harmless. So the toxin doesn’t end up in its oil itself which is used widely as a laxative or used to be. Not so much anymore.
When inhaled, ingested or injected untreated ricin, it is readily observed by the body, once inside it inactivates the ribosomes which manufactures proteins that yourself need to survive and reproduce. And once the protein train stops, life stops.
Just a single molecule of ricin is capable of inactivating 1,500 ribosomes per minute as it kills the cell. You may feel the effects within a few hours but ricin is generally a slow acting poison taking 1-3 days to cause death.
The tiny platinum plug found in Markov’s leg had two tiny channels drilled into it each able to hold about 1/5th of the milligram of the poison but that was more than enough to kill Markov or any other human . The toxin of ricin can change dependent on how it enters the body. Taking orally, it’s LD-50 is about 20 milligram per kilogram of body weight, about 8 castor beans worth of poison. But if its injected, like the way Markov got, it’s just 1 milligram per kilogram.
Antidotes to ricin are said to stay in the earliest stage of development but because ricin takes several days to kill, compounds are being investigated that can block it from reaching ribosomes in new cells in the body. And strangely enough, ricin is being investigated in its possible cancer treatment because of its ability to trigger that protein stopping self-destruct mechanism in cells including of course cancer cells.