The Complex Biology of Chemical Threats

by Diana Hopkins

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of toxic chemicals and bacterial agents in war. However, 46 years later at the United Nations Disarmament Conference – in Geneva in 1971 – after it was determined that biological threats and chemical threats were different enough that they should be managed separately, the Protocol was amended. One result was that biologicals would thereafter be managed by the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC) treaty, and chemicals would be managed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) treaty. Since the divergence of the two efforts, though, biological and chemical threats have been found to have somewhat more in common than was understood back in 1971.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recognize 10 chemical threat agents that straddle both the biological and the chemical categorizations because they are derived from biologicals – i.e., plants or animals. These chemical agents, which are called biotoxins, are:

  • Ricin – a poison found in castor beans that disables cells from producing proteins, thereby causing death;
  • Abrin – a ricin-like toxic plant protein found in “lucky bean” seeds that inhibits protein synthesis and causes severe cytotoxic effects intestinally (the “lucky” nickname derives from the fact that the seeds are sometimes used as lucky charms);
  • Brevetoxin – compounds produced by a dinoflagellate called Karenia brevis (aka neurotoxic shellfish poisoning) that disrupts the body’s neurological processes when ingested;
  • Strychnine – a toxin found in the seeds of the Strychnos nux vomica tree that causes death by paralyzing breathing mechanisms;
  • Saxitoxin – a shellfish toxin (aka paralytic shellfish poisoning) that paralyzes the body;
  • Colchicine – an extract from plants of the genus Colchicum that causes death similar to deaths caused by arsenic poisoning;
  • Digitalis – a plant that is extremely poisonous (ingestion of only a small amount can cause death) but interestingly, in a modified form, it can be used as a life-saving drug);
  • Nicotine – can cause respiratory paralysis at toxic levels;
  • Tetrodotoxin – toxin produced by symbiotic bacteria that inhabit certain fish, shellfish, and amphibians; and
  • Trichothecene – a poison, produced by fungi, that decreases protein production, often resulting in death.

The Efficient Production of Additional Complications These 10 chemicals are usually produced by plants and animals, but can also be produced by other biological means. Using such technologies as biocatalysis, metabolic engineering, and biopharming, the chemicals can be altered in various ways, and produced on a larger scale. Biocatalysts are derived from living organisms and the enzymes are used to catalyze chemical transformations that can, for one thing, develop altered or enhanced functions in chemicals. Metabolic engineering allows the introduction of genetic material into plants/bacteria – which can then mass-produce the chemicals desired. Biopharming technology is similar to metabolic engineering, but the plants/bacteria produce therapeutic proteins.

Technological advances allow for the mass production of toxic chemicals by using certain supplies that are currently not tracked. Additionally, toxic chemicals can also be enhanced and altered in ways that render them more difficult to detect and track. So on the one hand, technological advances have led to the more efficient production of chemicals, and on the other that particular advance has greatly complicated the efforts of the CWC to control, track, and/or detect chemical threats on a global basis.

BWC and CWC officials are aware that there is a certain degree of overlap in their missions, and that this overlap creates a gap in chemical tracking due to the confusion in missions.  Moreover, technological advances in biological production of chemicals has made the tracking of biotoxins  increasingly more complex for the BWC and CWC as they work on improving their efforts in the areas of control, tracking, and detection of chemical threats.

_______________________________ Diana Hopkins is the creator of the consulting firm “Solutions for Standards” ( She is a 12-year veteran of AOAC INTERNATIONAL and former senior director of AOAC Standards Development. Most of her work since the 2001 terrorist attacks has focused on standards development in the fields of homeland security and emergency management. In addition to being an advocate of ethics and quality in standards development, Hopkins is also a certified first responder and a recognized expert in technical administration, governance, and process development and improvement.