Castor plants, source of one of the world's best industrial oils, are gradually revealing the secrets of how they make this prized substance. Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif., are delving into the mostly-mysterious mechanisms.

Castor oil is unique and is valued as a lubricant for heavy machinery, or for making greases, pharmaceuticals, paints and more.

The researchers' probing has revealed, for the first time, the starring role that a gene called RcDGAT may play in directing the castor plant to put the oil's most important component, known as ricinoleate, into it. Ricinoleate is safe and free of ricin, the castor bean plants' natural toxin. The word “ricin” in the name “ricinoleate” stems from the plant's scientific name, Ricinus communis.