A Florida teen, 19-year-old Jesse William Korff, was arrested for allegedly selling one of the world’s most deadly poisons, abrin, to undercover federal agents. Korff used the online Black Market Reloaded (BMR) to sell the deadly poison in exchange for relatively untraceable Bitcoins and cash. The bust also revealed a pipe bomb and a methamphetamine lab.
So what exactly is abrin and where does it come from? Abrin is a complex protein that can be isolated from the seeds of Abrus precatorius, more commonly known as the Rosary Pea. The Rosary Pea is an invasive plant that thrives in warm and tropical climates. It is common in Malaysia, India, the Caribbeans, and the southeastern United States. In Florida it is found throughout the central and southern areas, and is a category 1 invasive species as it invades and displaces native plants. The poison itself, abrin, is contained within the brightly colored seeds, which is protected by a hard exterior. Abrin works by inhibiting cellular protein synthesis within the body. Symptoms depend heavily upon the route of administration and the amount (the dose makes the poison).
If ingested, the typical symptoms are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In extreme cases organ failure develops, followed by death. The confounding part for clinicians is that onset of symptoms can range from hours to days, and there is no “antidote” or “cure”, other than supportive care. There are numerous poisonings (intentional and accidental), and fatalities, reported in medical literature.
The real problem is by administration intravenously or by inhalation. Inhaled, abrin is about 4 times more deadly than ricin, which people may know from the TV show Breaking Bad and from recent news reports of ricin-containing letters sent to politicians. Inhaled, abrin has an LD50 (amount to kill 50% of a population) of 0.7 ug/kg. Given an average person of 60 kg, that’s a dose of 42 ug, or 0.042 mg! A grain of rice is about 10 mg and a grain of sand about 1 mg. The amount to kill me is about 5% that of a grain of sand. That’s impressive. And scary. Symptoms from inhalation would be nausea, fever, and respiratory distress. Eventually fluid would fill the lungs, making breathing difficult. Oxygen exchange would falter and death would be inevitable.
So besides being so deadly, abrin is also widely available. Online. Anonymously. While our federal law enforcement often comes under scrutiny and scorn, they did their jobs. And for that, we should all thank them.
Note: The major concern with toxins like abrin and ricin is their lethality when pure. Fortunately the average person does not have the ability or means to isolate pure abrin or ricin. Ingestion of Rosary Peas (abrin) or Castor Beans (ricin) is unlikely to cause death, even when ground (which people sell as “abrin” and “ricin”), but could still bring about symptoms of poisoning.
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I was just going through “Purification of Laboratory Chemicals” from Perrin, and noticed it had a helpful literature reference how to best extract and purify this stuff on a Sephadex column. Oh dear.
Seriously? I haven’t looked at that book in ~6 years, I’m going to have to dig it out.