The Hidden World of Seed Warfare

Hanson, Thor. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips, Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. New York: Basic, 2015. N. Print. “Chapter 8-11.”

This week’s reading definitely reminded me of my favourite television show, “Breaking Bad”. The beginning of Chapter 11 brought me back to the scene in the show, where a chemist teacher and heroin addict are working together to climb their way up the drug chain, and they come across a dilemma where they see murder as their only choice. A deathly plant-based poison seemed to be an ideal weapon choice. Who would’ve thought I could relate Breaking Bad to biology class!

Regardless of the somewhat eery topics, I thoroughly enjoyed pages 113-175 in Thor Hanson’s book, “The Triumph of Seeds”. My favourite part was Chapter 11, “Death by Umbrella.” I was a little freaked out when I discovered the meaning behind the title of this chapter.

Who would’ve thought an umbrella would become the optimal weapon for getting away with murder! The umbrella gun is engineered to shoot a tiny pellet that has 2 holes drilled in the side to leach poison into the target’s body. If you were to draw a dot with the tip of a pen, that’s how small the pellet is. I never would’ve imagined such advanced technology like this existing and being used! You may even be familiar with the plant that they derive this poison from, the caster bean plant. Caster beans are popular ornamental plants; there is even one on my school campus. The poison in the plant is really in the seed of the caster bean, which contains a peculiar, and deadly storage protein called ricin. This protein is highly beneficial for the growth of the plant during early stages, but if an animal ingests this protein, the odd structure of ricin can penetrate and kill living cells. On page 166, Thor explains how “ricin sets off a wave of cell death” and how it’s one of the most lethal substances known on earth. A tiny pellet can have the power to kill every cell in the human body many times over. I found this entire topic fascinating and I will never look at an umbrella the same!

What I really enjoyed about this chapter was the contrast between his topics of discussion. He begins the chapter talking about poisons from seeds being used in historical events, but he ends on a much more personal note. He explains how these powerful and peculiar proteins can also benefit humans, rather than just poison us. Hansons’ most powerful statement for me was on page 171, “But our almendro-tasting moment was so deeply ironic. At the time, neither of us knew that Steve’s cancer had reawakened and spread to other parts of his body, and that within a few months his doctors would probably start prescribing a variation of the very compound we’d been joking about.” I thought this was a really interesting aspect of the chapter. Hanson engages us in these stories of how seeds have undoubtedly impacted technology. Whether they are used to help fight a deadly disease like cancer, or to become a deadly murder weapon, like the umbrella. This week’s reading, has shown me the hidden world of seed warfare.



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