It is well known that castor seeds contain a poisonous toxin ricin. For farmers and other agriculturists involved in cultivation of castor and other vegetable crops, there would be a feeling of uncertainty as to whether cultivation of castor and other vegetable crops can be done in the same land, due to the poisonous nature of castor seed.
It should be noted that not the entire castor plant is poisonous; the toxin ricin is present only in castor seeds. Even the castor oil extracted from the seeds does not contain any toxin. Only the castor meal contains ricin. Once the plant is harvested and the residue cleaned up at the end of the growing season, there is no poison left out in the cultivated space; hence there is no harm in cultivating other vegetable crops in the same space where castor was cultivated.
Castor oil and meal has many benefits. Castor oil has been used as a purgative since long and still finds many advanced applications. Castor meal is now being utilized in some commercial repellent sprays for squirrels, rabbits, moles and other garden pests.
The toxicity of castor, in the form of ricin, is one of the key challenges that is slowing the adoption of castor as a crop in some countries, especially in the developed parts.
Toxicity challenges in castor industry can be overcome through genetic engineering.
An example of this is the Genetic Engineering of Lesquerella fendleri for castor oil production.
- Seed oil of Lesquerella fendleri (Lf) contains a valuable hydroxy fatty acid (HFA), lesquerolic acid (20:1OH).
- Lf does not have biological toxic compounds, thus its oil represents an alternative source of HFA. Lesquerolic acid is derived by a 2 carbon elongation of 18:1OH.
- By suppressing the elongation step through genetic engineering, it is possible to generate a new Lf crop that could produce 18:1OH.
Novo Synthetix, USA has followed the genetic engineering technique in castor such that it no longer produces ricin. No new DNA is introduced, mainly tweaking of genes.
Nova Synthetix, an agricultural biotechnology start-up, based at US,is looking to bring to market a castor-oil plant variety that does not contain a toxin. The company is commercializing a non-toxic castor plant that produces a unique fatty acid in its seed oil which will be used as a high-value chemical feedstock. They are contracting with growers and developing downstream markets for their castor product.
Nova Synthetix, has recently received a $50,000 grant from a private, US based non-profit corporation, named North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
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