Ergot Alkaloids – an ancient story

Ergot alkaloids are secondary metabolites usually produced by fungi belonging to the genus Claviceps. The most commonly occurring species producing ergot alkaloids is Claviceps purpurea. “Ergot” is a french word meaning “spur”, and was chosen as the name since grains, when infected, present so-called sclerotia and often resemble the spurs on the legs of a rooster.

Many different cereal plants and grasses, including rye, wheat and triticale among others, can become infected by these fungi during cool, wet weather conditions. These fungi then produce structures called sclerotia. These sclerotia contain different classes of ergot alkaloids, the most prominent being ergometrine, ergotamine, ergosine, ergocristine, ergocryptine and ergocornine together with their epimeric –inine forms. If grains containing sclerotia are processed by grinding into flour, high contamination levels of ergot alkaloids typically follow.

Currently, available data on ergot alkaloids show that the intake of contaminated food or feed can severely affect animals and humans. Ergot poisioning is called ergotism, a severe pathological syndrome. Symptoms include hallucinations, itchy and burning skin, nausea, dizziness and even abortion. Ergotism is one of the oldest known diseases caused by mycotoxins and was first described in the Middle Ages as so-called St. Anthony’s fire.

Furthermore, ergot alkaloids are not only known as mycotoxins. Ergotamine, for example, is one of the components of the psychoactive drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Ergot alkaloids are also used for medicinal purposes, including the treatment of migraines and the induction of birth process among others. Up to now, the amount of ergot alkaloids present in food and feed is not regulated, but regulations are under strong discussion in the European Union.

Currently, the most widely used detection method for ergot alkaloids is based on HPLCFLD (High Performance Liquid Chromatography with fluorescence detection) and can be performed using calibrants and a one-step cleanup provided by Romer Labs. An official CEN LC-MS/MS (liquid chromatography – mass spectrometry) method is currently under development.

This article was published in our Spot On magazine

Other interesting topics In this issue:

  • Emerging Mycotoxins - A Treat beyond Regulations
  • Alternaria toxins
  • How to develop an LC-MS/MS-based Multi-Mycotoxin Method

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