ECBC scientists discuss ricin detection methods

Scientists at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) in Maryland recently discussed the technology used to detect ricin.

One of those methods, called electrochemiluminescence (ECL), uses electrical excitation of ions to measure protein molecules. The method allows for the detection of toxins with only a fraction of the target molecule.

"We use (ECL) as a positive control rather than using live active toxin on a daily basis in order to cut down on risk and improve safety," Lindsay Lyman, a biologist for ECBC, said.

ECBC also uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology to detect ricin. The method examines DNA rather than protein molecules to identify the toxin.

Although PCR technology has been used for almost 10 years, ECBR scientists said it could pave the way for new ricin-detection methods.

"I've also seen some equipment that is fluidics-driven, which would lead to analyzing more targets in less time and cost," Andrew Bailey, a biologist for ECBC, said. "That's something we're always trying to focus on: minimizing the time it takes from when ECBC receives the samples to when the client receives the results."

Ricin is a highly toxic protein found in the seeds of the castor oil plant. The substance can be fatal in small doses, and there is currently no antidote for the toxin.