What is Abrin?

Mary McMahon

Abrin is a toxin found in the seeds of Abrus precatorius or rosary pea, a plant native to tropical regions. This toxin can cause severe injuries, and may lead to death even with rapid medical intervention. There is no antitoxin for abrin poisoning, and treatment is focused on supporting the patient as his or her body processes the toxin.

Inhaling abrin may lead to pulmonary edema, which is a condition where fluid builds up in the lungs.
Inhaling abrin may lead to pulmonary edema, which is a condition where fluid builds up in the lungs.

Abrin is closely related to ricin, an infamous plant toxin which attracted global headlines when it was used in the Tokyo Gas Attack. This toxin, however, is much more dangerous. This plant toxin attacks cells from the inside, inhibiting the synthesis of proteins in the cell and causing the cells to die. As abrin penetrates the body, it causes tissue death, which leads to organ failure and eventual death for the patient. Death from abrin exposure can occur in hours or days, depending on the method of exposure and the amount of the toxin ingested.

Rosaries are often made with the seeds of the rosary pea, a vine native to India and Asia.
Rosaries are often made with the seeds of the rosary pea, a vine native to India and Asia.

Although abrin is extremely dangerous, there are no recorded instances of cases in which the toxin has been utilized in biological warfare. Most cases of abrin poisoning occur by accident when people are exposed to the plant. The brightly colored black and red seeds of the Abrus precatorius are sometimes used in necklaces and other jewelry, and the toxin is highly stable, so people may be exposed through contact with the beads years after the seeds have been harvested. For example, if the beads are broken and people inhale the dust, they can develop abrin poisoning.

Abrin toxin can cause severe injuries, and may lead to death.
Abrin toxin can cause severe injuries, and may lead to death.

This toxin can be absorbed through the skin, the respiratory tract, and the gastrointestinal tract. Usually the first symptoms occur at the point of exposure. For example, someone who has inhaled abrin may develop pulmonary edema and other respiratory problems, while someone who has ingested it may develop vomiting and diarrhea. Exposure through the skin can start with a rash and skin inflammation.

When someone is exposed to abrin, steps should be taken to get as much of the toxin out of the system as possible, and then to provide supportive therapy to keep the patient stable. Treatment needs to be provided in a hospital setting. If there is any reason to suspect poisoning with this toxin, whether through accidental or intentional exposure, when someone is brought to a hospital for treatment, doctors and nurses should be made aware so that they can provide the most appropriate treatments and therapies.

Inhaling abrin may result in organ failure.
Inhaling abrin may result in organ failure.

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Discussion Comments


If you think about it, Abrin might accidentally poison the user through contact as well as the person they are trying to poison.


@JimmyT: Abrin is 75 percent more deadly than ricin, and it has been used already in terrorist attempts! But every poison out there is made out of something we're exposed to every day! These things have to be made into weapons, but if you do your part to get rid of the poisonous plants in your yards and schools, there will be fewer plants being made every day!It is very possible that it can be just as devastating as nuclear warfare and much cheaper!

No one's trying to scare people, but why deny the truth when things like this happen all over the world in small doses? You just don't always hear about it. Being aware is not being scared!


I find all these posts about terrorism using this particular poison very interesting. I find it amazing that any article that can be associated with terrorism brings in so much discussion of something that almost never happens.

Yes it should be noted that terrorists can use something similar to abrin as a weapon to be used against innocent civilians, but people should not be any more worried about this poison than they would be against others like resin.

I feel that anything written involving chemical warfare scares people into thinking that there is no hope if it were to be utilized and made into a weapon. Fact is, this particular poison has not been used as a weapon and there is probably a reason for that. If it ever were to be used as a weapon it would probably be used on a small scale like most terrorist attacks and not be a horrible epidemic like people think it will be. What I would like to know is what the mortality rate is of those people that are poisoned by abrin and how long someone can go without medical attention once they are poisoned?


@TreeMan - Abrin could be used in a terrorist attack, but then again there are several other different poisons that could also be used.

I am not an expert on poisons and I doubt anyone that has commented so far is a poisons expert, but I have to imagine that there are much better poisons out there that terrorists can used as opposed to abrin.

I like to think of it from this perspective. If abrin has not already been used by terrorist to carry out an attack in some way there is either a problem with them doing so or they have found much better poisons, such as resin or anthrax, to carry out their attacks. Although articles like these can be a little scary when associating things talked about with terrorist attacks I do not believe that abrin would be any more dangerous than any other terrorist attack involving poison and the terrorists have better ideas than to use a poison such as this.


@jcraig - I totally agree with you on that assumption. Since abrin can poison someone in a variety of ways it seems like it is an ideal type of poison to be created into a weapon.

What people need to understand though is that the poisons that terrorists use in their attacks does not have to only be used in the form of gas. I am actually quite surprised that they have not tried other methods to carry out their attacks and since abrin is something that could be used in a variety of ways it seems like it could easily be used as a weapon that could be used over and over again in a variety of ways.


It seems to me that although abrin has never been recorded as a biological weapon it is perfectly suited to be utilized as such.

As shown in the Tokyo gas attack someone can easily take a lot of a powdered substance and be able to form it in such a way that it can be used as a biological weapon. Although abrin is something that has not been used yet I can see it being used as such and due to its toxicity it may only be a matter of time before abrin makes headlines across the world for being used in a terrorist attack.

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