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"Into the Wild" author uses science to solve toxic seed mystery

'Into The Wild' Author Tries Science To Solve Toxic Seed Mystery : The Salt : NPR

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Toxic seeds!

He sent the seeds back to the Michigan lab, Avomeen Analytical Services, for more thorough tests. About nine months and some $20,000 later, Krakauer published results in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine in March showing that the seeds did indeed contain a toxin. But it wasn't beta-ODAP. It was another amino acid, L-canavanine.

Plenty of legumes store this toxin in their seeds to ward off predators. The compound is similar an essential amino acid, arginine, and it tricks the body's cells into thinking it's good for them. "And then it wreaks havoc," says Krakauer. "It screws up your ability to metabolize, so you essentially starve. It short-circuits your metabolism."

The plant in question is the Eskimo potato, also known as alpine sweetvetch, or Hedysarum alpinum. The hardy little plant grows across Alaska and northern Canada. McCandless, along with plenty of Alaska natives, had relied on the carrot-like roots as a staple. But Krakauer could find no record of people eating the seeds. The L-canavanine toxin could be why.

"Once the roots became unpalatable in midsummer, the natives did not eat these seeds," Krakauer explains. "So, they knew something that we didn't."

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