Detection of Intact Ricin in Crude and Purified Extracts from Castor Beans Using Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization Mass Spectrometry

Ricin is a highly toxic protein from the seeds of the castor bean plant. Crude extracts from castor beans are toxic by several routes, and there is international concern about the use of these extracts by terrorist organizations. Lethality in aerosolized form has spurred the development of methods for the rapid detection of this protein from air samples that is critical in determining the illicit use of this material. Matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization (MALDI) mass measurement with an automated laser firing sequence was used to detect intact ricin from solutions containing less than 4 μg/mL of ricin in the presence of other endogenous seed proteins. This sensitivity was attained with the addition of 0.01% Tween 80 to the extracts that greatly enhanced the ricin signal. Importantly, this treatment substantially reduces the interference from the castor bean seed storage proteins. Commonly the ricin signal can be completely obscured by the oligomers of seed storage proteins, and this treatment reveals the ricin molecular ion, allowing the analyst to make a judgment as to the ricin content of the extract. This method provides for sensitive and rapid identification of intact ricin from aqueous samples with little sample preparation and is amenable to automatic acquisition.