A proof-of-concept, two-tiered approach for ricin detection using ambient mass spectrometry†
Ricin is a naturally occurring, highly potent toxin native to castor bean plants that has recently been used as a biological weapon in cases of bioterrorism and suicide attempts. Difficulties with direct detection arise from large heterogeneities in ricin glycosylation, which leads to markedly different bioactivity, and the fact that carefully developed and laborious sample preparation steps are required to maintain the activity of the protein during analysis. Herein, we present an alternative, two-tiered approach to identify the presence of ricin by detecting ricinoleic acid and ricinine, which are co-extracted with the protein. This direct mass spectrometric-based technique takes as little as 2 minutes, and we determined its sensitivity to be in the parts-per-trillion range. Our method is applicable to paper substrates from suspected contaminated envelopes and biofluids from at-risk patients. The fact that prior sample preparations are not needed in this procedure means that analysis can be performed in the field for emergency cases.