Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Toxic Effects of Mycotoxins in Humans

Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Toxic Effects of Mycotoxins in Humans

Article excerpt

Voir page 763 le resume en francais. En la pagina 763 figura un resumen en espanol.


Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites of moulds that exert toxic effects on animals and humans. The toxic effect of mycotoxins on animal and human health is referred to as mycotoxicosis, the severity of which depends on the toxicity of the mycotoxin, the extent of exposure, age and nutritional status of the individual and possible synergistic effects of other chemicals to which the individual is exposed. The chemical structures of mycotoxins vary considerably, but they are all relatively low molecular mass organic compounds.

The untoward effect of moulds and fungi was known already in ancient times (1). In the seventh and eighth centuries BC the festival "Robigalia" was established to honour the god Robigus, who had to be propitiated in order to protect grain and trees. It was celebrated on 25 April because that was the most likely time for crops to be attacked by rust or mildew (2).

In the Middle Ages, outbreaks of ergotism caused by ergot alkaloids from Claviceps purpurea reached epidemic proportions, mutilating and killing thousands of people in Europe. Ergotism was also known as ignis sacer (sacred fire) or St Anthony's fire, because at the time it was thought that a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Anthony would bring relief from the intense burning sensation experienced. The victims of ergotism were exposed to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a hallucinogen, produced during the baking of bread made with ergot-contaminated wheat, as well as to other ergot toxins and hallucinogens, as well as belladonna alkaloids from mandragora apple, which was used to treat ergotism (3). While ergotism no longer has such important implications for public health, recent reports indicate that outbreaks of human mycotoxicoses are still possible (4).

Some mycotoxicoses have disappeared owing to more rigorous hygiene measures. For example, citreoviridin-related malignant acute cardiac beriberi ("yellow rice disease" or shoshin-kakke disease in Japanese) has not been reported for several decades, following the exclusion of mouldy rice from the markets. Citreoviridin is a metabolic product of Penicillium citreonigrum, which grows readily on rice during storage after harvest (5), especially in the colder regions of Japan (6). Another mycotoxicosis not seen for decades is alimentary toxic aleukia, common in the 1930s and 1940s in the USSR. This disease was caused by trichothecenes produced by Fusarium strains on unharvested grain.

General interest in mycotoxins rose in 1960 when a feed-related mycotoxicosis called turkey X disease, which was later proved to be caused by aflatoxins, appeared in farm animals in England. Subsequently it was found that aflatoxins are hepatocarcinogens in animals and humans, and this stimulated research on mycotoxins.

There is a long history of the use of certain moulds in the production of cheese and salami and in the fermentation of beer and wine. Moulds are also used in the production of drugs (antibiotics). The classification of mould metabolites as antibiotics or mycotoxins is based on their toxicity or beneficial effect in treating diseases. Some mould metabolites that were initially considered to be antibiotics (e.g. citrinin) were subsequently found to be highly toxic (7), and are currently classified as toxins. Ergot alkaloids are still used, inter alia, in the treatment of parkinsonism, as prolactin inhibitors, in cerebrovascular insufficiency, migraine treatment, venous insufficiency, thrombosis and embolisms, for the stimulation of cerebral and peripheral metabolism, in uterine stimulation, as a dopaminergic agonist (8).

The toxic effects of mycotoxins (e.g. ochratoxins, fumonisins, zearalenone, etc.) are mostly known from veterinary practice. Mycotoxicoses, which can occur in both industrialized and developing countries, arise when environmental, social and economic conditions combine with meteorological conditions (humidity. …

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