Castor Bean history and connection to ALS

        Thu, 8 Sep 1994                                                         
      Query:  Castorbean history and connection to ALS?                         

[From: IN%"" "RON LEEB"]

Dear H-Rural subscribers,

I'm a unique graduate student in history at California State University, Northridge (and new to this network), in that I've had Lou Gerhig's disease (aka: ALS) going on 15 years now. What does this have to do with the H-Rural list? : I've developed an hypothesis that exposure to the castorbean (Ricinus communis L.) plant's powerful allelopathic neurotoxin (principle toxin being: Ricin), which is 10 to 1,000 times more potent than potassium cyanide, is the environmental toxin that is the cause of Lou Gerhig's Disease (ALS); as "The residue remaining after the oil has been extracted from the seed is known as castor pomace, and is used widely as organic fertilizer..." (USDA, Texas A & M: Castorbeans in Texas). The castorbean plant is masticated into the pomace pulp, other publications refer to it as the "pomace cake" or "poison cake," that is then incorporated into mixed fertilizers (Duke, James A. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. CRC Press Fla: 1985) to alter the genetic code (an allelopath) and kill a worm (nematode) that has a voracious appetite for foliage and crops. And "research has shown that genes controlling nematode development are strikingly similar to genes in other animals, including humans"(from NATURE REPORT, Gene Mutation Finding Advances ALS Research, By Robert C. Di Iorio). It is through the use of these mixed fertilizers that I hypothesize many people who have Lou Gerhig's disease have come into contact with the ALS pathogen ricin. It was from the fertilized grass sports fields that I theorize that the three members of the same 1964 Forty-niner football team who came down with ALS had come into contact with the allelopathic neurotoxin ricin (The Daily Breeze, "Fertilizer, disease link studied." Feb. 15, 1987), as I've found reference to a study done by the state of California, Division of Chemistry, Dept. of Food and Agriculture that examined thoroughly the deaths of three children from eating castor beans and twenty-three serious cases of allergic reactions attributed to the castor bean plant, "frequently from using the pressed cake of Castor Bean as a lawn fertilizer," particularly for the period 1951-56 (Fuller, Thomas C. Poisonous Plants of California. University Calif. Press:1986). I've been informed by my California state representative that the Dept. of Food and Agriculture has lost the above mentioned report.

THIS IS MY QUERY: I've found reference to the castor bean plant having been imported into the United States sometime around the 1850s, and it was in the 1870s that ALS found its clinical expression in the U.S. Can anyone give me advice on searching the agricultural records (USDA, FDA, EPA, etc.) for data on castorbean: importation, cultivation, experimental agriculture studies, done since the mid-19th century. I've never done governmental agricultural archival research and am totally in the dark here. Any advice you can send my way would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You, Ronald J. Leeb California State University, Northridge.

  • Thu, 8 Sep 1994 Re: Query: Castorbean history and connection to ALS?

[From: IN%"AEFFLAND%ERS@UICVM.UIC.EDU"] > > THIS IS MY QUERY: I've found reference to the castor bean plant having >been imported into the United States sometime around the 1850s, and it >was in the 1870s that ALS found its clinical expression in the U.S. Can >anyone give me advice on searching the agricultural records (USDA, FDA, >EPA, etc.) for data on castorbean: importation, cultivation, experimental >agriculture studies, done since the mid-19th century. I've never done >governmental agricultural archival research and am totally in the dark >here. Any advice you can send my way would be greatly appreciated. >

I recommend using the AGRICOLA database to begin your search and the old print catalogues of the National Agricultural Library. These might be available in your university library, but would certainly be available somewhere in the University of California system. I also suggest you request the 1986 report California claims to have lost on interlibrary loan. Suggest to your librarian that they order it from the National Agricultural Library if it is not available from another source.

Some of the best sources, I think, will be bulletins and reports of the state experiment stations and land-grant college research faculties. These reports contain many good but obscure research results. I'm trying to remember if there is an easy way to access those reports. Some may be individually catalogued in AGRICOLA and the NAL catalogues. Maybe another H-Rural reader has some suggestions about this.

There are some guides to USDA records at the National Archives (probably also FDA, although I haven't used those. EPA may be too young to have many records already available for use through the Archives--more recent records are held at the Washington Records Center or regional centers until they are accessioned by the Archives. They still technically belong to the creating agency and you need permission from that agency to use them. But a reference archivist can help you with that.) You should contact the Civil Reference Branch at (202) 501-5395 for help. I think Ann Cummings handles agricultural records, but whoever answers the phone will set you in the right direction.

I'm sure I'll begin to sound like a broken record, but I really recommend calling the Reference Desk at the National Agricultural Library for help in researching questions about relatively obscure subjects in agriculture. Their number is (301) 504-5479.

|ANNE B. W. EFFLAND                 |                                           
|ECONOMIC RESEARCH SERVICE          |                                           
|U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE     |                                           
|1301 NEW YORK AVENUE, NW 932D      |                                           
|WASHINGTON, DC 20005-4788          |                                           
|202-219-0788 FAX: 202-219-0391     |                                           
|AEFFLAND@ERS.BITNET                |                                           

        Thu, 8 Sep 1994                                                         
      Re: Query:  Castorbean history and connection to ALS?                     

[From: IN%"" "Joseph J. Molnar"]

Try the National Agricultural Library

Claudia Weston Database Administration Branch Room 003 National Agricultural Library, USD 10301 Baltimore Bouldevard Beltsville, MD 20705-2351


please share your experience with this system

good luck

joe molnar

Thu, 8 Sep 1994 Castorbean history and connection to ALS?

[From: IN%"" "Norma Bruce" ]

The NAL suggestions are good. If you want to feel more in control of your sources, check "Guide to Sources for Agricultural and Biological Research" by Blanchard and Farrell (1981). One indexing service that goes back pretty far (1916) is Biological and Agricultural Index, published by Wilson and used like "Reader's Guide." In its early years it indexed the extension bulletins. Before 1964 it was called Agricultural index. Old farm journals may be a source too--sometimes farmers noticed problems first, even if their ideas weren't proven yet. Our Ohio Cultivator was edited for several years by a horticulturist, and Ohio Farmer had N.S. Townshend as a writer before he became one of the first faculty members at Ohio State. I don't know about the other states, but I don't think ours was indexed in the 19th century, except the annual indexes for the individual journals.

Fascinating topic.

Norma Bruce Ohio State University

         14 Dec 1994                                                            
     Re: Castorbeans & ALS Query                                                

[From: IN%"marles@BrandonU.CA" ]

Dear Ronald,

With regard to your inquiry about the castor bean plant, you could have your librarian do an on-line search of AGRICOLA, one of the main agricultural databases. However, I doubt that castor bean is the source of your ALS.

Castor is probably native to tropical Africa but by ancient times had already become widespread throughout Africa, India, and sourther Asia. Castor beans have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 4000 BC. The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical treatise believed to date from 1552 BC, translated by Georg Moritz Ebers in 1872, describes castor oil as a purgative. Herodotus in 500 BC reported that Egyptians purged themselves with castor or aloes every month, three days successively, seeking to preserve health by emetics and enemas, for they believed that all diseases proceed from the food they use. They also used the oil for their lamps and probably for personal hygiene (oiling the skin preceeded soap use). Pliny in the first century also wrote of castor as a purgative. The Greeks and Romans copied this practice, which remained widespread until the medieval Arabian physician Mesue (Jahiah Ebben Masawaih) promoted the use of another ancient Egyptian remedy for constipation, the milder laxative senna. Because of its terrible taste and the danger of poisoning the patient if the oil was extracted improperly, castor fell into disuse until it was again promoted by an English physician, Peter Canvane, resulting in its admission in 1788 into the London Pharmacopoeia. Thus castor was known to Americans perhaps first as a medicine, although certainly the majority of the importation and subsequent cultivation has been for industrial applications of the oil (soap, plastics, bath oil, and engine lubricants e.g. Castrol).

Although castor oil is a mild irritant of the entire gastrointestinal tract, the toxic principles remain in the seed cake. These are the proteins ricin and ricinus agglutinin, and the alkaloid ricinine. Note that none of these are neurotoxins! Ricin is a lectin, a small protein with a molecular weight of approximately 70,000 daltons, consisting of two chains, a longer B chain and a shorter A chain linked together by a single disulphide bridge. The B chain binds to a glycoprotein (sugar-protein combination) receptor on animal cell surfaces. This stimulates the cell membrane to infold and make a pouch (vacuole) inside the cell containing the ricin. The disulphide link is then broken and the B chain inserts itself into the wall of the pouch and forms a channel through which the A chain passes into the cell's cytoplasm. The A chain then binds to ribosomes, which are the protein factories inside the cell, inactivating them. This has nothing to do with altering the genetic code. The genetic code is the sequence of nucleic bases in DNA. To express a gene, the genetic code is transcribed into RNA which is transported to the ribosome where it is used as a template (translated) to guide the assembly of amino acids into proteins, such as enzymes, receptors and structural proteins necessary for life. Thus the ricin A chain is exclusively responsible for the toxic effect by blocking the synthesis of proteins. Since the A chain does this as a catalyst (it can bind to and inactivate a ribosome, be released and do it to other ribosomes repeatedly), this explains its extreme toxicity. A single molecule can kill a cell (only 14 nanograms = 0.000000014 gram is enough to kill a mouse if injected intravenously). Ricin stops protein synthesis first in the intestinal wall, and additional damage is done by the ricinus agglutinin, which causes red blood cells to coagulate and break down, and ricinine which contributes to the overall effects listed below. Symptoms of castor bean poisoning appear after a short delay of about an hour after ingestion, and include burning in the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting, severe stomach pains, diarrhoea, prostration and shock from massive fluid and electrolyte loss, headache, dizziness, lethargy, impaired vision, possible rapid heart beat, and convulsions. Two to five hours following ingestion, hemorrhaging in the eyes, stomach and intestines, fluid buildup in the lungs and digestive tract and deterioration of the liver and kidneys are seen, and death occurs within days from kidney failure. The toxic dose is as little as one seed (chewed) for a child, 2 - 6 for an adult. Ricin is also allergenic which is a problem in factories where the castor pomace cake (remaining material after oil extraction) is made.

Thus you are correct in stating that toxicity may arise from use of castor bean seed cake as a lawn fertilizer, but it is not neurotoxicity. While there are allelopathic agents (plant defense compounds) that affect our genetic code (genotoxins or mutagens), there are actually thousands of different compounds with different mechanisms of action, affecting every conceivable aspect of our health (hence they are sources of many of our best drugs).

The only reference I have seen to plants implicated in ALS is "Guam Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis-Parkinsonism-Dementia" (ALS-PD), which has been linked to the consumption of seeds of cycad trees (false sago palm). Very high rates of ALS, parkinsonism, and dementia were noted among the Chamorro people of Guam and Rota during a critical food shortage there in the early 1950's. They declined rapidly after the introduction of American food supplies in 1955. Traditional dietary factors were investigated as a probable cause. The toxic constituent of cycad seeds is an unusual non-protein amino acid, beta-N-methylamino-L- alanine, which produces signs of motor-neuron, extrapyramidal, and behavioural dysfunction, conduction deficits in the central motor pathway, and neuropathological (degenerative) changes of cells in the motor cortex and spinal cord of macaques. The symptoms in these monkeys correlate well with other epidemiological and animal data to suggest that this was the cause of ALS-PD there.

There are of course many agricultural chemicals used as pesticides which are often mixed with fertilizers (e.g. "weed and Feed" type products) that could be neurotoxic, so you may be right that there is a link between the lawn treatment exposure and ALS. I just don't think that castor beans are likely to be the culprit, based on what I know of the plant.

I hope you find this information useful, and I wish you the best of luck with your detective work. Sincerely,

Robin J. Marles, Ph.D., Pharmacognosist and Assistant Professor of Botany Brandon University, Brandon, MB R7A 6A9 CANADA Tel.: 204-727-7334, Fax: 728-7346, Internet:

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Posted: 17 Jul 1995

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