Fungi and Disease

Some Topics

Fungi in Food

Fungal contamination of food may be one of the more pervasive and seldom recognized cause of disease. Fungi produce mycotoxins that are versatile and potent causes of disease. Mycotoxins can cause acute and chronic illnesses, induce cancer, and damage vital organs such as the liver kidney and brain. A variety of fungi (Fusaria, Trichothecium, Cephalosporium, etc.) may contaminate grains and produce illness with symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, chills, dizziness, and blurred vision.

Aflatoxins are produced by molds which favor nuts, corn, millet, and figs. These toxins may produce symptoms like loss of appetite and jaundice (hepatitis) immediately and with repeated exposure, they are also carcinogenic; Some of these fungal metabolites are also neurotoxins that produce tremors as a conspicuous symptom. The same fungi, which produce aflatoxin, produce a tremorgen, known to cause "staggers" in sheep and cattle. The common fungi, which grow on food, even in the refrigerator, are Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Claviceps. Over 15 tremorgenic mycotoxins have been isolated from these fungi.

Sweet potato supports a fungal growth (Fusarium solani) especially when the tuber's surface is damaged. The fungus alters the potatoes' metabolism, and toxic stressors are produced. Ipomeanol is one such chemical that is liver and lung toxic. Lung disease in cattle is caused by fungal-infected sweet potatoes. Aspergillus is a ubiquitous fungus that can fatally infect patients with reduced immunity;

The mycotoxin ochratoxin A is a common contaminant of foods and beverages such as beer, coffee and wine. It is produced as a secondary metabolite of moulds from Aspergillus and Penicillium genera. Ochratoxin A inhibits protein synthesis by competition with phenylalanine its structural analogue and also enhances the production of oxygen free-radicals. Its multiple toxic effects include cytotoxicity, teratogenicity, genotoxicity, mutagenicity and carcinogenicity; OTA exposure was linked to “Balkan Endemic Nephropathy” with a high incidence of urinary tract tumors.

Ergot alkaloids (EA) are well-studied mycotoxins produced by several fungi that cause disease in plants and animals. The ergot alkaloids are diverse chemicals that act mostly in the nervous systems of animals. LSD is the best known ergot derived hallucinogen. Cereal grains often support fungi that produce ergot. Plants derive some protection against predators from the fungal growth; 

In their review, Schardl, Panaccione, and Tudzynski stated: “EA have been a major benefit, and a major detriment, to humans since early in recorded history. Their medicinal properties have been used, and continue to be used, to aid in childbirth, with new uses being found in the treatment of neurological and cardiovascular disorders. The surprisingly broad range of pharmaceutical uses for EA stems from their affinities for multiple receptors for three distinct neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline), from the great structural diversity of natural EA, and from the application of chemical techniques that further expand that structural diversity. The dangers posed by EA to humans and their livestock stem from the ubiquity of ergot fungi (Claviceps species) as parasites of cereals, and of related grass molds that grow on pasture grasses and produce toxic levels of EA. Further concerns stem from saprophytic EA producers in the genera Aspergillus and Penicillium, especially A. fumigatus, an opportunistic pathogen of humans. Numerous fungal species produce EA with a wide variety of structures and properties. These alkaloids are associated with plants in the families Poaceae, Cyperaceae, and Convolvulaceae, apparently because these plants can have symbiotic fungi that produce EA. “

EA Drug effects vary: the include vasoconstrictors, smooth muscle contractors and psychotropic drugs. One of the lysergyl amides is LSD, the most potent hallucinogen known; For centuries outbreaks of ergot poisoning occurred in villages that consumed moldy rye flour. "St. Anthony's fire" referred symptoms, such as burning sensations in the limbs caused by blood vessel constriction in the limbs that sometimes lead to gangrene. EA made the victims “crazy” with hallucinations, convulsions and sometimes death.

Schardl CL; Panaccione DG; Tudzynski P. Ergot alkaloids--biology and molecular biology. Alkaloids Chem Biol; 2006; 63:45-86 (ISSN: 1099-4831)


Fungi Everywhere

A profusion of fungi exists in the environment. Some fungi are able to cause an invasive infection in otherwise healthy individuals. Other fungi are opportunistic fungi that become invasive when immune defenses are compromised. Diagnosis of fungal infection is difficult. There are many problems when you try to connect a test result to a disease. Fungi are so abundant and there are so many varieties in every environment that it is seldom easy to pick just one cause among many. Fungi are inhaled and ingested. Foods always contain fungal spores and actively growing molds. Attempts to culture fungi often fail; only a small number grow in the culture media commonly used. Some new methods of detecting fungal DNA may be useful but development of reliable tests is slow and expensive.

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