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ROSARY PEA, PRECATORY BEAN - Abrus precatorius

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Distinguishing features

The rosary pea is a slender twining vine with a woody base. It has pea-shaped pods , about 1-1.5 inches long. They split open when dry to reveal brilliantly scarlet small pea-shaped seeds with a small jet-black spot at the point of attachment to the pod. This feature is important in the identification of the seed. 

DescriptionAbrus precatorius is a perennial vine that grows to 10-20 feet and uses other plants for support.  Flowers are red to purple in color.  Fruit is a legume pod that produces ovoid red seeds with a black spot at one end. 
Geographic rangeAbrus precatorius is native to India and was introduced to warmer regions of the world.  It is now well established in Florida and is used as an ornamental throughout North America.
Toxic principleSeeds contain abrin, a potent lectin, along with other toxic compounds.
ToxicityToxins are released only if the seed is chewed and swallowed. Other parts of the plant are not poisonous and animals are not often poisoned.  However, poisoning is very serious as abrin is one of the most toxic compounds known.  As little as 0.00015% body weight will cause fatality in humans.  All animal species are susceptible.
Mechanism of toxicologic damage. Abrin inactivates ribosomes, inhibiting protein synthesis.  Abrin is not cell specific, but rapidly dividing cells are most likely to be affected.

Clinical signs. Initial signs of GI dysfunction, including excess salivation, colic, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration, develop several hours after ingestion.  Body temperature may rise to 104 F.  Hyperexcitability and convulsive seizures are seen before death. 

LesionsThe mucosa of the digestive tract and urinary bladder may have splotchy hemorrhages and ulcerations.  Pulmonary edema, congestion of various organs, and retinal hemorrhage may be seen.   Also common are mild to moderate hepatic and renal tubular degeneration.  

TreatmentAdministration of fluids and electrolytes will alleviate dehydration.  
Injection of abrin causes death indistinguishable from that caused by Clostridial disease.  For this reason, hide merchants in India used to impale abrin-coated wooden spikes in the necks of cows, thus increasing the hide supply in a society in which butchering cattle was looked down upon.



Copyright 2002

University of Pennsylvania
Created by:    Alexander Chan (2003), Daphne Downs (2002), Chris Tsai (2001), Brett Begley (2000), Janet Triplett (1997)
Faculty Advisor:  Dr. Robert Poppenga