Into The Wild Essay
The Silent Fire
ODAP and the death of Christpher McCandless continued...
ODAP and the Hedysarums
Emboldened by my hunch, as well as the response from Dr. Treadwell, I approached the chair of the Chemistry research laboratories of my university. He and other individuals there were intrigued enough to look into the possibility that one of the major contributing factors in the death of Chris McCandless might actually have been lathyrism, through the agent of the protein toxin ODAP. What follows are, in part, the results of that study:
“The seeds and roots of both hedysarum alpinum and hedysarum mackeniei were obtained from the Arctic Alpine Seed Company in Marsh Lake, Yukon, by the Chemistry Department of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Samples of pure ODAP as well as the plant lathyrus sativus were also obtained from Dr. S.L.N. Rao, in New Delhi, India, whose ongoing research into the horrors of lathyrism poisoning had been underway for many years. Dr. Rao’s lathyrus plants were of the variety that contained extremely high levels of the ODAP toxin. These samples would serve in base line comparisons.
To consolidate the research, consistent footprints for ODAP were first established on silicon test plates. The plants involved were all first frozen in liquid nitrogen. After this, each was ground into a fine powder. The powder was then placed into micro-centrifuge tubes and mixed with a solution of ethanol. Then, after being refrigerated for 20 hours, the assorted powders were spun on a centrifuge to separate a solid pellet from the liquid extract. The liquid yet remaining was spotted across the bottom two centimeters of a silicon test plate, and the plate placed into a glass tank to minimize evaporation or contamination. Capillary action next drew the liquid slowly up the plate until, after a pre-determined time, the assorted substances established their respective protein footprints. (In this case, ‘footprint’ refers to a purplish-colored circle of the extracted substances that appears at a certain height on the plate. Different substances travel up the plate at different rates. Thus, the presence of circles in the same area of the plate indicates that the same substance is also appearing).
After the plate was placed in a dehumidifying hood for drying, it was sprayed with the anhydrous solution ninhydrin to bring out the color of the specific markers. The results were then ready to be viewed.
A number of proteins were tested for the sake of comparison, including (in addition to the purified ODAP and the lathyrus sativus extracts,) substances such as arginine, isoleucine, praline, tryptophan, glycine, valine, and for purposes of balance, legume family members which are known to be non toxic (such as common Wando garden peas).
The tests were repeated many times to ensure the consistency of the results, and when they displayed uniformity in their results, the conclusions are as follows:
Neither the roots of the hedysarum alpinum nor
the hedysarum mackenziei indicated the presences of ODAP. However,
both the seeds of the alpinum and the mackenziei indeed tested
positive for ODAP. In fact, the seeds of both of the hedysarum
plants showed even higher concentrations of the deadly protein toxin
ODAP than was contained in the tissues and fibers of the lathyrus
sativus plant itself. Only purified ODAP showed a higher
concentration of the toxin. But the fact remains: not the roots, but
the seeds of both hedysarum alpinum and hedysarum mackenziei
actually contain higher concentrations of the toxic protein ODAP
than were contained in the test samples of the lathyrus sativus.
Probably, as is the classic case in nature, as the growing season
had progressed from July into August in 1992 in Alaska, both plants
had begun to concentrate
more and more of their poisonous products into their seeds to discourage potential predators.”
It seems important to mention here that although the roots of the alpinum plant have been consistently reported as safe to eat, and that it is dangerous to confuse it with the mackenziei and to avoid eating the latter altogether, at no point has any mention been made that the seeds of the alpinum might be toxic. It’s difficult to explain why, other than to speculate that either the Native Americans, foragers, survivalists and botanists have tended not to eat (or test) the seeds at all, or possibly tested the seeds at times of the year before they had grown highly toxic, or else had been able to supplement their diets with enough other sources of nutritious provisions to basically counteract the effect of the seeds in question. (It takes five to six weeks for the toxin to begin to exhibit its effect, and then only when the seeds have been the principle food source in an individual’s diet). A number of factors, in other words, could have come into play. But the bottom line is that until the experiments conducted on the alpinum and mackenzeiei seeds, it had never before been known that the seeds of both hedysarum species contained an accumulative toxin.