Ergot (Claviceps purpurea Tul.) is a poisonous fungus that is hazardous to animals and humans. It appears to be a small, hard, black, elongated structure that grows on and contaminants grains, which is called scelrotium. The appearance tends to look like mold. When eaten in quantity or small amounts over a period of time it can be highly toxic. Furthermore, it is a major problem for humans in North America but even more severe for animals. Humans are susceptible to being contaminated with this poisonous fungus because ergot can grow on mushrooms, rye, wheat, and barley. These are products that humans ingest everyday. Ergot is the most notorious poison because it includes several species of ascomycete fungi with complex life cycles that parasitize the grains of various cultivated and wild grasses. Therefore, it is necessary to check for ergot contamination, especially if they are home-grown grains.
The epidemic or spreading phase of the ergot fungus occurs at the same time the grasses are in flower. Fungal spores infect the ovaries of the mature flower of the host plant. These develop mycelia (fine threadlike filaments). At this initial infection an excretion of honeydew (moist, sticky secretion) stage, develops and the mycelia continue to grow within the ovaries of the host and become sclerotia (fruiting bodies). A sclerotium appears as a cylindrical, three sided body, slightly curved, hornlike, hard, grooved on one or both sides, dark purple next to black that is 1/3 to 1 1/2 inches long and 1/8 to 1/4 inches wide. There is a very unpleasant aroma (odor), which is somewhat fishy. The developed sclerotia finally falls to the ground to germinate in the summer at once or may wait until after the winter and germinate the following spring. While germinating, each sclerotia grows into a long stalk with globular fruit heads that may be formed from wind born to infect a new crop of grass flowers. The infection can occur by insects also.
According to Fuller and McClintock, ergotism has caused so many occurrences in epidemic and the middle ages was known as St. Anthony's fire. In France many people died from this disease, which was caused mainly from eating bread made from rye grains contaminated with ergot (p. 20).
Plant Toxin/Derivative Drug
Researchers state over fifty alkaloids are within the ergot sclerotia, but mainly ergonovine (also known as ergometrine, ergobasine, ergotocine, ergotstetrine C19H23N3O2, ergotamine C33H35N5O5,ergotcryptine C32H41N5O5, ergocornine C31H39N5O5, ergocristine C35H39N5O5, ergosine C30H37N5O5, and ergovalide) is present in ergot. Most of the alkaloids contain thirty to thirty-five carbon atoms, although some have a smaller number. Therefore, these alkaloids can be classified as polypeptides. All ergot alkaloids form lysergic acid. Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, is the most powerful compound known that produces imitations of severe mental disorders. Ergot alkaloids not only have the indole structure...