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III. FUNGI AS PARASITES                                                 TOP

B. Destructive Fungal Parasites

5. Ergotism



5. Ergotism

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 and ertotaline, 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.


Convulsive 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.

Claviceps 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, & Jovanovich, N.Y.).