What is Ricin?


Ricin a lectin (a carbohydrate-binding protein) produced in the seeds of the castor oil plant, Ricinus communis, is a highly potent toxin. A dose of purified ricin powder the size of a few grains of table salt can kill an adult human. The median lethal dose (LD50) of ricin is around 22 micrograms per kilogram of body weight if the exposure is from injection or inhalation (2 milligrams for an average adult). Oral exposure to ricin is far less toxic as some of the poison is inactivated in the stomach. An estimated lethal oral dose in humans is approximately 1 milligram per kilogram.

Ricin is classified as a type 2 ribosome-inactivating protein (RIP). Whereas type 1 RIPs are composed of a single protein chain that possesses catalytic activity, type 2 RIPs, also known as holotoxins, are composed of two different protein chains that form a heterodimeric complex. Type 2 RIPs consist of an A chain that is functionally equivalent to a type 1 RIP, covalently connected by a single disulfide bond to a B chain that is catalytically inactive, but serves to mediate transport of the A-B protein complex from the cell surface, via vesicle carriers, to the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Both type 1 and type 2 RIPs are functionally active against ribosomes in vitro; however, only type 2 RIPs display cytotoxicity due to the lectin-like properties of the B chain. In order to display its ribosome-inactivating function, the ricin disulfide bond must be reductively cleaved.

Ricin is synthesized in the endosperm of castor oil plant seeds. The ricin precursor protein is 576 amino acid residues in length and contains a signal peptide (residues 1–35), the ricin A chain (36–302), a linker peptide (303–314), and the ricin B chain (315–576). The N-terminal signal sequence delivers the prepropolypeptide to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and then the signal peptide is cleaved off. Within the lumen of the ER the propolypeptide is glycosylated and a protein disulfide isomerase catalyzes disulfide bond formation between cysteines 294 and 318. The propolypeptide is further glycosylated within the Golgi apparatus and transported to protein storage bodies.

Ricin B chain binds complex carbohydrates on the surface of eukaryotic cells containing either terminal N-acetylgalactosamine or beta-1,4-linked galactose residues. In addition, the mannose-type glycans of ricin are able to bind to cells that express mannose receptors. RTB has been shown to bind to the cell surface on the order of 106-108 ricin molecules per cell surface. The profuse binding of ricin to surface membranes allows internalization with all types of membrane invaginations. The holotoxin can be taken up by clathrin-coated pits, as well as by clathrin-independent pathways including caveolae and macropinocytosis.

RTA has rRNA N-glycosylase activity that is responsible for the cleavage of a glycosidic bond within the large rRNA of the 60S subunit of eukaryotic ribosomes. RTA specifically and irreversibly hydrolyses the N-glycosidic bond of the adenine residue at position 4324 (A4324) within the 28S rRNA, but leaves the phosphodiester backbone of the RNA intact. The ricin targets A4324 that is contained in a highly conserved sequence of 12 nucleotides universally found in eukaryotic ribosomes. The sequence, 5’-AGUACGAGAGGA-3’, termed the sarcin-ricin loop, is important in binding elongation factors during protein synthesis. The depurination event rapidly and completely inactivates the ribosome, resulting in toxicity from inhibited protein synthesis. A single RTA molecule in the cytosol is capable of depurinating approximately 1500 ribosomes per minute.

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