The $41 million 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 scientist 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, CA. Now, they intend to construct and insert genes that could undermine production of ricin and allergens.