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
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
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