Ergot

by Andrea Salvador and Gillian Kolla, October 1995

Ergot is a fungus which infects a variety of plants from rye to cereals to grass. This essay will describe the life cycle of the ergot, the epidemics resulting from ergot contamination, the medical use of ergot and its relation to LSD.

Ergot is from the genus Claviceps purpurea of the . It is the seed-like body of a fungus which grows mainly in the seed of the rye plant and in various grass plants. There are 32 recognized species of ergot. The sclerotia of the plant will remain dormant through periods of winter or drought and germinate under favourable, moist conditions to give rise to small, mushroom- like fruiting bodies. The heads of the fruiting bodies are shiny and spherical and are made up of long, filamentous ascospores, which are the sexual spores of the fungi. The ascospores are ejected from the body of the fungi and are blown by the wind. If they land on a healthy stigma of a grass flower stick or rye plant, they enter, as does pollen, into the ovary and begin to form a fine mycelial network. Soon after infection, a special structure called the sphacelium develops between the ovary and the base of the floral cavity. The sphacelium produces hundreds of thousands of conidia. The condia are the asexual spores of the fungi. They are embedded in a sugary matrix called a honeydew. The honeydew is very sticky and fetid smelling and it attracts insects who feed on these sugars to the plant. When the insects move on to another plant, the condia will be stuck to its legs and mouthparts and will infect healthy ovaries of other plants. After several weeks in this new plant, the sclerotium develops between the sphacelium and the flower base, which brings us back to the beginning of the cycle, completing the life cycle. Both the honeydew and the sphacelium are not toxic and do not contain the poisonous alkaloids that are responsible for ergotism.

Ergotism is a complex disease that results from the ingestion of grains and cereals infected with ergot by humans and domestic animals. Ingestion of these long, hard, purplish-black structures usually lead to one of three main types of ergotism: gangrenous, convulsive and hallucinogenic. In gangrenous ergotism, people experience nausea, and pains in the limbs. Quite often bodily extremities turn black, dry and become mummified, making it possible for infected limbs to spontaneously break off at the joints.

In convulsive ergotism, people experience epileptic form seizures, ravenous hunger, violent retching, tongue biting or unusual breathing patterns. Because of this various parts of the body become grossly deformed. This results in permanent nerve damage and long recovery periods.

In hallucinogenic ergotism, people often experience symptoms of one of the other forms of ergotism along with vivid hallucinations.The other symptoms are very much like those of modern psychedelic drugs such as nervousness, physical and mental excitement, insomnia and disorientation. People with this form of ergotism were also observed to perform strange dances with wild, jerky movements accompanied by hopping, leaping and screaming. They would dance compulsively until exhaustion lead them to collapse unconscious. High mortality rates were associated with each of the three forms of ergotism.

Epidemics of ergotism have been reported as early as 857 A.D., although the most serious epidemics occurred between the late 900's to the 1800's. The incidence of epidemics increased in times of famine and heavy rain following severe winters. Under these conditions the rye became heavily infected with ergot. The government now sets a safety limit on ergot of between 0.1 and 0.3% in grain. The fatal level is between 8 and 10%. The most recent outbreak of ergotism was in France in 1951 when moldy grain was used to make flour.

Ergot has had several uses in the field of medicine. There are reports as far back as 1582 of European and Chinese midwives using it to reduce haemorrhage following childbirth. It has also been used to induce abortions. Two of the alkaloids of ergot, ergotoxine and ergotamine have also been found to have medical uses. Ergotamine and to a lesser extent ergotoxine, were found to be remarkable in the treatment of migraine headaches. However both ergotamine and ergotoxine cause gangrene with chronic use. It must therefore be used only under strict medical supervision.

LSD. One of the most famous derivatives of ergot was lysergic acid. In the 1938, two Swiss researchers, Hofmann and Stoll, dervived d-lysergic acid diethylamide. It was thought to be relatively uninteresting until Hofmann accidentally ingested a small quantity of the drug. He was the first person to go on an "acid trip". LSD is the most famous psychotomimetic drug and was used widely in North America and Europe through the 70's. After ingesting LSD, the user will experience optical changes, inability to concentrate, phases of uncontrollable laughter, anxiousness and the quite typical experience of the subject standing outside of the body watching these events. Senses are also enhanced. The "trip" lasts for about 8 hours with a state of self-centeredness that lasts for an additional 5 hours.

Ergot has been widely used for many centuries for a number of different purposes ranging from its medical uses to its recreational drug uses. It has also been the cause of a great many epidemics across Europe from the early 10th to the late 19th century. Knowledge of this fungus has increased throughout the years, however further research into the alkaloid derivatives may still produce beneficial medical uses.

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