Researchers at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, led by Professor Vern Schramm, said the protein -- in the form of a powder, mist, pellet or solution -- can be injected or inhaled, As little as one-half milligram of ricin is lethal to humans. No antidote is available.
The new assay can detect small amounts of ricin more accurately and faster than before. Users would place samples of potentially adulterated food or swabs used to wipe potentially contaminated surfaces into a few drops of a mixture of reagents. That mixture will emit light if ricin is present, with higher luminescence indicating greater concentrations of the toxin.
"In retrospect," said Schramm, "like many scientific advances, it's such a simple idea that I'm surprised it wasn't thought of earlier."
Schramm said he believes the assay's most immediate application is for discovering drugs that could serve as antidotes for ricin poisoning.
The study is reported in the journal Analytical Chemistry.