Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. Basic Books, New York, USA. Chpt. 11.
Poisons have been a tool of political power for millennia. Since the unfortunate execution of Socrates by water hemlock, plants and their metabolites have been exploited for their less than savoury health benefits in order to dispose of particularly radical individuals who sought to change the political tides of an era. In Hanson’s chapter, “Death By Umbrella”, he recited the unfortunate events of the Cold War assassination of Georgi Markov. The fellow was shot (or should I say stabbed) using a 007-esque umbrella with envenomed BB rounds. The process of elucidating what toxin killed the esteemed novelist was a rigourous and by no means easy challenge. Most other toxins of the era didn’t have these effects at such a low dosage as the BB round would inflict. Eventually, the researchers revealed that the poison used was not some bacterial extract or cobra venom, but instead was ricin: an alkaloid extract from Castor beans.
Hanson’s exploration of the Markov case was cleverly written. Throughout the retelling of the events, the author was able to maintain a theme of spy thriller in the writing. By adding in references to “…the KGB’s equivalent of Q’s lab” and discussing the effects ricin would have in a “Bulgarian dissident”, Hanson generates images of James Bond style assassinations, rife with stealth, subterfuge, and subtlety that occurs unbeknownst to the common masses.
The narrative then proceeds into a section regarding the two sides of seed alkaloids. These toxins, which at certain dosages make for the most lethal of poisons, can be used also in medicine. Compounds like ricin, which are strongly cytotoxic when injected intravenously, can be used to combat cancers if administered in the proper fashion. Hanson refers back to the tree he studies here, the Almendro. The tree produces a compound called coumarin, which when modified by fungi (!) becomes an extremely potent blood thinner. Small doses of this compound are strong enough to kill cattle, but through modification by human hands, this derivative has been converted to the effective
rat poison anticoagulant Coumadin; the medicine is used globally to treat individuals with cardiac issues, heling to save numerous lives each day.
So seeds have both the added benefit of being protected by a tough seed coat, and have the added benefit of producing toxins that deter the full consumption of the plants offspring. Encased in armor and armed with bioweapons, baby plants are well prepared for the hardships of life in the harsh environment known as nature.