Ricin and Ricinus communis in pharmacology and toxicology-from ancient use and "Papyrus Ebers" to modern perspectives and "poisonous plant of the year 2018"

Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol. 2019 Oct;392(10):1181-1208. doi: 10.1007/s00210-019-01691-6. Epub 2019 Jul 29.


While probably originating from Africa, the plant Ricinus communis is found nowadays around the world, grown for industrial use as a source of castor oil production, wildly sprouting in many regions, or used as ornamental plant. As regards its pharmacological utility, a variety of medical purposes of selected parts of the plant, e.g., as a laxative, an anti-infective, or an anti-inflammatory drug, have been described already in the sixteenth century BC in the famous Papyrus Ebers (treasured in the Library of the University of Leipzig). Quite in contrast, on the toxicological side, the native plant has become the "poisonous plant 2018" in Germany. As of today, a number of isolated components of the plant/seeds have been characterized, including, e.g., castor oil, ricin, Ricinus communis agglutinin, ricinin, nudiflorin, and several allergenic compounds. This review mainly focuses on the most toxic protein, ricin D, classified as a type 2 ribosome-inactivating protein (RIP2). Ricin is one of the most potent and lethal substances known. It has been considered as an important bioweapon (categorized as a Category B agent (second-highest priority)) and an attractive agent for bioterroristic activities. On the other hand, ricin presents great potential, e.g., as an anti-cancer agent or in cell-based research, and is even explored in the context of nanoparticle formulations in tumor therapy. This review provides a comprehensive overview of the pharmacology and toxicology-related body of knowledge on ricin. Toxicokinetic/toxicodynamic aspects of ricin poisoning and possibilities for analytical detection and therapeutic use are summarized as well.

Keywords: Castor oil; Immunotoxins; Intoxication; Nanoparticles; Papyrus Ebers; Ricin; Ricinus communis; Tumor therapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Plants, Toxic / chemistry*
  • Ricin / isolation & purification*
  • Ricin / pharmacology
  • Ricin / toxicity
  • Ricinus / chemistry*
  • Seeds


  • Ricin