Into The Wild Essay
The Silent Fire
ODAP and the death of Christpher McCandless continued...
How Lathyrus Sativus Kills
Even today, at this moment, lathyrus sativus is maiming, crippling and killing. It is currently estimated that more than 100,000 people worldwide are suffering from irreversible paralysis due to the consumption of the plant. The disease is called, simply, neurolathyrism, or more commonly, “lathryism.”
One may wonder how this can be happening, and why it continues to happen.
Dr. Arthur Kessler, who was the Jewish physician who initially recognized the sinister experiment that had been undertaken at Vapniarca, was one of those who escaped death during those terrible times. He retired to Israel once the war had ended and there established a clinic to care for, study, and attempt to treat the numerous victims of lathyrism from Vapniarca, many of whom had also relocated in Israel. It was through his efforts and those of fellow scientists and physicians in a host of other countries that the exact nature of the toxin in lathyrus satius was finally isolated. The scientific name for the neurotoxin is “beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta-diaminoproprionic acid.”
More commonly, a simple acronym is used: “ODAP.” As in the cases of rattlesnake and spider venom, and scorpions, wasps and bees, or the agents in peanuts that cause anaphylaxis, the actor involved in the poisonings caused by latnyrus sativus is a protein (not an alkaloid) toxin. This difference between the two is not insignificant.
Typically, if lathyrus sativus comprises about 30 percent of more of a person’s diet for several months, lathyrism is inevitable. But in some cases, much smaller amounts bring about the onset of paralysis in much shorter periods of time. Why this occurs remains unclear.
The core problem with the protein neurotoxin ODAP is that it affects different people, different sexes, and even different age groups in different ways. It even affects people within those age groups differently. As yet, there is no explanation for this. The one constant about ODAP poisoning however, very simply put, is this: those who will be hit the hardest are always young men between the ages of 15 and 25 and who are essentially starving or ingesting very limited calories, who have been engaged in heavy physical activity, who suffer trace-element shortages from meager, unvaried diets, and consequently suffer micro-nutrient deficiencies in zinc, copper, Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Why this is so is not known, yet neither is it, particularly in the case of Christopher McCandless, insignificant.
How ODAP brings about paralysis is understood. Glutamic acid, an amino acid, is one of the most common excitatory neuron-transmitters in the human body. The amino acid acts as a chemical messenger between nerve cells, docking with the cells and inciting the nerve to “fire” its electric impulse. Things called AMPA receptors on individual nerves act a little like lightning rods, in that they are primed to receive the prompt signals from glutamic acid, much as a lightning rod is positioned to draw lightning. The protein in ODAP simply over stimulates the AMPA sites. The nerves are then like lightning rods in the middle of a lightning storm; they simply get overheated to the point of burning out. They literally die. Once the AMPA receptors die, the nerve cell can no longer receive the glutamic prompts to fire. If the process is repeated often enough, and long enough, the entire system begins to fail. It isn’t clear why, but the most vulnerable neurons to this catastrophic breakdown are the ones that regula leg movement. When a neuron dies, it cannot be brought back to life – regenerate. And when sufficient neurons die, paralysis sets in. With lathyrus sativus the ODAP over stimulation never gets better; it always gets worse. The signals get weaker and weaker until they simply cease altogether. The victim experiences “much trouble, just to stand up.” Many become rapidly too weak to walk. The only thing left for them to do at that point is to crawl.
At the time of the publication of Into the Wild Jon Krakauer felt that McCandless had mistaken two species of wild legumes called hedysarum alpinum and hedysarum mackenziei. The former is believed to be harmless; the latter said to be toxic. Krakauer first thought that McCandless had eaten the “toxic” plant erroneously. Later he came to believe that he hadn’t mistaken them, but that the “harmless” alpinum itself had concentrated toxins in its seeds, something which had heretofore been unsuspected. Krakauer had sent samples of two plants, hedysarum alpinum and hedysarum mackenziei to the University of Alaska to have them examined for what he believed may have been the toxic agent that essentially killed Chris McCandless by weakening him to the point that he could no longer hunt, forage and, eventually, even walk. Krakauer felt that the toxin may have been swainsonine, an alkaloid, the same toxic agent found in locoweed.
The person who did the research was Edward Treadwell, who at the time was a graduate student in the Chemistry Department of the University of Alaska. In that study, Treadwell could find no evidence of an alkaloid toxin in either species of the hedysarums. Later, in 2008, Treadwell and a colleague, Dr. Thomas Clausen, again investigated the possibility of alkaloid toxins in both plant species, and in an article which appeared in the Ethnobotany Journal (vol. 6, 2008) after examining the roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds of both hedysarum alpinum and hedysarum mackenziei, the pair again concluded that no trace of an alkaloid toxin appeared in either plant species.
It is extremely important, at this point, to
note that the plants in question were examined for an alkaloid
toxin, but not a protein based one. With my understanding of the
protein toxin ODAP that is contained in lathyrus sativus, and the
hunch that this – rather than an alkaloid toxin – may have been at
the core of what befell Christopher McCandless, I emailed Dr.
Are you familiar with the toxic plant poisonings of the forced labor camp prisoners at Vapniarca in 1943?
The reason for this question is this: the
toxin in the lathyrus sativus that was fed to the prisoners caused
severe crippling of the lower extremities of the victims. The plant,
a legume – also commonly called wild sweet pea or grasspea contains
beta-oxalyl-diaminoproprionic acid (beta-ODAP) as its toxic agent.
Perhaps Jon Krakauer was mistaken when he speculated that swainsonince was the toxic agent in hedysarum alpinum which was responsible for the death of Christopher McCandless. Of course your research thus focused on the plant looking for alkaloids, but might a toxic protein have in fact been a contributing cause in McCandless’ death?
What gives rise to this question are McCandless’ statements, “much trouble just to stand up”’ and “too weak to walk out,” which rings strangely of paralysis of the lower extremities, or lathyrism, which is what beta-ODAP, via lathyrus sativus causes.
In reading “Into the Wild” this possibility comes to mind in a rather haunting way.
ICARDA (the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) estimates that over 100,000 people around the world are currently permanently paralyzed to some degree because of lathyrism.
Any further information you may wish to
provide would certainly be most welcome.
Dr. Treadwell responded thusly:
Thank you for your recent correspondence, and I am sorry that it has taken so long for me to respond. I must admit that the presence of ODAP in the hedysarum seeds is intriguing. I would have to say that it is a possibility. All of my work was done on extracts of the hedysarum plants (roots, leaves, stems), where the plant material was soaked in some organic solvent to extract the organic compounds from the solid material, which was then discarded. (Much like making tea – the water seeps into the tea bag and brings out the “tea flavor” from it). Although I do not know this for sure, ODAP probably isn’t very soluble in organic solvents and hence might have remained with the rest of the solid material.
Second, the “tests” I used for alkaloids basically consisted of spraying a TLC plate of the extract with reagents that turn colors on a plate when they react with an alkaloid. Once again, ODAP being an amino acid, it might not have behaved like most alkaloids.
Something that is outside of my area but is
certainly pertinent is the relationship between the genus lathyrus
and the genus hedysarum. Usually the more exotic secondary
metabolites occur in only a limited number of genera that are
closely related. The closer lathyrus is to hedysarum, the more
likely this hypothesis. (The fact that they both belong to the same
family isn’t all that helpful, given the immense size of the family
All told, I am not sure if this is a very satisfactory response, as I cannot definitively state that hedysarum alpinum and/or mackenziei contain /do not contain ODAP.
It is possible.
It wasn’t until 1962 that the toxic protein in lathyrus sativus was finally isolated and identified. The food value of the plant runs at over 28 percent. That’s twice as much as wheat. It can be three times as productive as soybeans per acre. It will still be standing two months after wheat has grown a mere four inches, shriveled for lack of rain, and died. Lathyrus sativus smothers out all competing weeds. In certain situations it is a cheaper and better source of protein than rice, fish, wheat, soybeans or maize. Napoleon had problems with lathyrus sativus when it was fed to his horses. In 1972 in China and in the late 70’s in Bangladesh, tens of thousands of humans were permanently disabled, most of them left quadriplegic, the silent fires burning in their nerve ganglia.
By the early 1990’s, Canadian scientists in Manitoba had genetically engineered hybrid lathyrus sativus plants that contained less than .2% of the toxic ODAP, yet still retained the qualities of drought resistance, vigor, saturation tolerance and fertility. Efforts to refine a toxin-free strain of lathyrus sativus continued. In the late 1990’s, after 15 years of work and more than a million dollars of research, the Syrian scientist Ali Abd El-Moniem, working in Aleppo, developed a strain that is virtually toxin free. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives funding for such continuing efforts from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and from donors to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which is a consortium of international agencies that works collectively to protect the environment, reduce poverty in developing countries, and to support research into agricultural productivity.
And yet hundreds of thousands continue to be
crippled and to die in a “silent” epidemic that almost none of the
rest of the world knows about. Why? In many places on the planet
where the legume thrives, populations are increasing by three
percent each year, but agricultural production by only seven tenths
of one percent. In these places there are no serviceable feeder
roads and virtually no other supportive infrastructures. There is no
exchange of information. Marketplaces are rural and isolated,
limiting the exchange of goods, services, and supplies. There are
few schools, and fewer still that teach about local agricultural
products The relief efforts tend to be lost in all the intertwining
agencies and complexities. There are not enough services because in
some cases there aren’t enough healthy people to provide them. There
are not enough teachers, enough agronomists, enough economic
specialists, sociologists, anthropologists, or linguists.
Unfortunately, lathyrism continues to be a very “low profile”
affliction of the human race. This fact does not lessen the tragedy
– in fact only heightens it.