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Finger printing toxic organisms

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28 April, 2010

Australia may soon be better equipped to investigate and prosecute chemical biological incidents, pin-pointing the origin of toxic plant organisms.

DSTO is working with local and international partners to track ricin production
DSTO is working with local and international partners to track ricin production

Forensic research, led by Australia’s defence science organisation, is recording the origins and varieties of castor beans, whose seeds can be used to produce ricin, a highly toxic chemical.

The prevalence and ease of seed collection, and ricin’s toxicity, make it imperative to have an accurate account of the origin and types of castor bean plants worldwide.

The Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) is the world’s only organisation applying metabolomic forensics to castor bean research.

“DSTO is investigating the castor bean’s chemical make-up, or its ‘metabolome’ and matching analyses to known origins and varieties,” DSTO researcher, Dr Simon Ovenden explains.

Dr Ovenden says three forms of chemical analysis are being conducted ‘to fingerprint populations of small molecules, within castor bean plant extracts.’

“A plant’s environment, its soil composition, or even the amount of rain, can significantly impact its metabolomic production. Consequently, multiple chemical analyses are performed to accurately identify the spectrum of possible biological markers.”

“To isolate and study the difference between small molecules, and to investigate the environment’s effects on the plant’s metabolome, collaborators at the University of Melbourne and Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service are growing castor bean specimens in controlled greenhouse environments,” Dr Ovenden says.

Researchers hope traces of suspected ricin extracts collected after a chemical biological incident, can later be matched with those recorded by the DSTO analyses and used to subsequently pin-point the variety and origin of the plant used.

The DSTO research is supported by a National Security Science and Technology grant (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet), and collaborations with Emergency Management Australia, the Australian Federal Police the University of Western Australia and Curtin University.



The Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) is part of Australia's Department of Defence. DSTO's role is to ensure the expert, impartial and innovative application of science and technology to the defence of Australia and its national interests.

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