B. Destructive Fungal Parasites
Sclerotia of Claviceps purpurea, called ergots (Fig. 12-22), when eaten by animals cause a form of poisoning referred to as ergotism.
Fig. 12-22. A diagram of Claviceps (above) and Cordyceps (below), two important genera of the Clavicipitales.
There are 32 species of Claviceps that form sclerotia referred to as ergots. They are fungi (Fig. 12-23) that resemble small mushrooms in which the perithecia are embedded in the capitate tip.
Fig. 12-23. A stroma of Claviceps purpurea, showing several embedded perithecia.
The sclerotia form in the seed heads of a number
of grasses. The safety limit set by the U.S. government is from 0.1 to
0.3% in grain used for human consumption. The toxicity in man has been
known for years as St. Anthony’s
Fire. Individuals hallucinate and sometimes feel as if they are
burning. Two toxic alkaloids involved, ergotamine
cause constriction of the smooth muscles, and ensuing restriction of
peripheral blood supplies that can lead to gangrene and death. Ergotism
has been known for thousands of years, with reports as early as 857 BC.
This mysterious disease struck the Spartans in 430 BC during their war
with Athens. Screams of the dying, smell of rotting flesh, and the loss of
limbs were grisly sights in those days. Supplications were made to their
gods, especially St. Anthony, in which pilgrimages were made in hopes of
finding relief; thus the name St. Anthony’s Fire. Old German literature
referred to ergots as mad grains. The Eleusinian
Mystery during the time of Plato involved people making pilgrimages to
Eleusinian Temples where sacramental potions (=kykeon) were taken, which
among other things contained cereal grains and water. The hallucinogenic
compound in ergot is an alkaloid, and all alkaloids are more or less
soluble in water; but the toxic ones in ergots are less soluble than the
hallucinogenic ones (lysergic acid amide). LSD doesn’t
occur in ergots but is a semi-synthetic derivative
made in the lab from lysergic acid amide. There is
some evidence that ergotism may have been responsible for events
surrounding the Salem Witchcrafts in the 17th century. These and other history of ergot
implications are found in Mary K. Matossian’s (1989) book Poisons of the
Past: Molds, epidemics, and history. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven.
What was the disease like? Gangrenous ergotism was accompanied with fatigue, cold/tingling sensations, severe muscle pain, swollen inflamed limbs and burning pain, followed by chills. Limbs become numb, turn black and mummify (Fig. 12-24).
Fig. 12-24. An artist's depiction of pain and deformity caused by ergotism.
ergotism involves the central nervous system and early symptoms are
similar to those of gangrenous ergotism. As symptoms progress, however,
twitching, muscle cramps, and finally convulsions occur. People with
this form of ergotism perform strange dancing with lots of jumping and
screaming, usually ending with exhaustion. There is from 10 to 60%
mortality, with many who recover having brain damage. In a 300-year
period (1500-1800s), more than 65 epidemics were recorded throughout
Europe and satellite countries. Animals that consume ergot-infected
grasses in the field develop what is called “blind staggers”
and hemorrhagic syndromes.
St. Anthony’s Fire was very common during the
Middle Ages when milling practices did not effectively eliminate the
ergots from milled grains, especially in rye. One of the latest
outbreaks of egotism was reported in France in 1954. This outbreak is
the basis of the book by John Fuller (1957), The Day of
St. Anthony’s Fire, which also deals with the French
government’s bureaucratic blundering that delayed finding a solution
to the problem. A bright
side of the picture, however, is that these alkaloids are used to induce
childbirth and to control post-partural bleeding. Chinese and
European midwives are reported to have use ergots with alkaloids in the
1500s. Ergotamine tartrate is used in the management of migraine.
gained great notoriety when Hoffman (Sandoz Labs, Switzerland) in 1938
discovered that the sclerotia also contained lysergic acid amide, a precursor
of LSD, one of the
most potent psychotropic drugs (100 times as potent as psilocybin). Five
years later (1943) he discovered its hallucinogenic activity. LSD can
result in temporary personality changes and severe “flashbacks”,
often the latter requiring shock treatment and extensive therapy to
eliminate. More than 100 compounds have been isolated from sclerotia of
species of Claviceps (Wasson,
Ruck, & Hoffman. 1978. The Road to Eleusis. Harcourt, Brace, &