Seeds That Kill

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. Perseus Books Group, Basic Books, New York, NY. pg. 161-175


“Death by Umbrella”. Well that definitely sounds interesting. I thought this book was about seeds? After gaining knowledge about the more innocent, wholesome seeds in the earlier chapters (like beans and spices), it was an abrupt change to read about seeds that have the potential to kill.

Right away, readers are thrown into a dark and disturbing story about Georgi Markov, and how he got assassinated by a seed toxin. Not a classic weapon we expect to see in assassinations, such as guns or explosives, but a tiny amount of product that came from a seed. It’s truly amazing to think about how a seed can produce such a thing, and the author does an amazing job at capturing the attention of the reader right at the beginning of the chapter by introducing such a troubling story of murder.

Hanson definitely focuses a lot on Markov and his death within this chapter, but it is very suitable, especially when he explains just how much (or little, I should say) of an amount it takes to kill a person. He described that the pellet removed from Markov’s body that contained the poison measured less than 1.5 millimeters in diameter and had a capacity of 450 micrograms. Although I wasn’t sure how much this was, Hanson did an excellent job in comparing it to a pen: “press a ballpoint pen lightly onto a piece of paper. The tiny ink-speck it leaves behind  is the size of the pellet” (pg. 164). That is TINY! I would never have expected that little of an amount to harm someone, never mind killing a man.

I’ll be honest, when I first started the read, I knew absolutely nothing about any toxic seed. What they were, how much toxin they contained, how they worked to kill a living organism, nothing; but again, Hanson does an incredible job in taking the reader through all of these, so we get a clear understanding of the concept as well as keeping it interesting at the same time. As a biology major, I found it awesome that he described how ricin works. By describing it’s “double-chain structure” and how it uses both chains, with “one chain piercing the surface while the other detaching inside and wreaking havoc on the ribosomes” (pg. 165), I understand how toxins work to a degree.

That is something I find phenomenal: how such a tiny seed can wreak so much havoc.

Hanson also made me realize how many seeds actually contain toxins, like apple seeds and cherry pits, which are both common fruit. I knew apple seeds contained cyanide, but I never realized people were using it in high quantities to actually kill people. It’s almost scary to think about. However, at the same time, Hanson reminds us that the toxins can also serve as a medicine for many species. For example, primates “shop around the apothecary of the rainforest to help rid themselves of parasites, or relieve the pain of injury and disease” (pg. 169). Seeds are like a double-whammy, possessing the ability to both kill and heal.

Personally, this has been my favorite read so far. Maybe it was because I find the fact that seeds can contain so little yet do so much, or maybe it was because I love a murder mystery story; either way, Hanson captivated me yet again by the simple yet breathtaking triumph of seeds.


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