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Photo: A castor bean pod. Link to photo information

Read: more in Agricultural Research magazine

Biotech Advance May Revive U.S. Castor Oil Production

By Marcia Wood
January 25, 2001

The $41 million worth of castor oil that the United States currently imports might someday be produced from domestically grown castor plants, thanks to work by scientists with the Agricultural Research Service.

Castor oil, which has a worldwide market of more than $400 million annually, is used for heavy-duty lubricants, paints, shampoos, and other products. But castor is no longer grown extensively in the United States because the plant’s colorful beans contain a deadly toxin called ricin. And the meal ground from the beans when they are processed can cause severe allergic reactions, including asthma or anaphylactic shock and death.

ARS scientists Thomas McKeon and Grace Chen have produced about a dozen genetically engineered castor plants--a scientific first. They did that in their laboratory and greenhouse at the ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif. Now they intend to construct and insert genes that could undermine production of ricin and allergens.

McKeon and Chen are seeking a patent for their work. The January 2001 issue of ARS’ Agricultural Research magazine tells more.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Thomas A. McKeon, ARS Western Regional Research Center, Albany, Calif.; phone (510) 559-5754,