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Ergot and Ergotism February 23, 2009

Posted by woodtree0587 in Plant Pathogens.
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Civilizations have been plagued with a fungus called Ergot for centuries. Ergot is found on all the grains of the world but is most commonly found on rye and wheat. Ergot replaces the grain with purplish sclerotium, which is a hard compact mass of fungal tissue, and is the place where the sexual stage of the fungus will take place after over wintering (Hill, SP 2007). The sclerotia form the ergot, and mostly grow in wet cool areas, or when there has been a particularly wet season. In French ergot means “spur,” because it resembles the spur of a male rooster which, is on the back of their leg used to protect themselves. The sclerotia are “full” of alkaloids and when a mammal eats them the resulting disease is called Ergotism. Ergot on RyeErgotism constricts the blood vessels of mammals and can have devastating consequences. In humans there are two “types” of ergotism: One being Gangrenous, which is the physical constriction of blood vessels and the extremities of the body, can actually fall off and dry gangrene, can set in (Matoissian, 1989, p. 5.1). The second is Convulsive ergotism, which causes hallucinations, convulsions, and the sense of flying and can cause abortions (Hill, FA 2007).

Throughout history, especially in the European nations and a little in the Americas ergotism plagued the peoples and were known as epidemics. Religions and governments didn’t have a clue as to what was happening to the people and there are many stories and epidemics that are blamed on ergots; they didn’t know how to stop or control the horrible things that happened to the people. In today’s society we know more about ergots and ergotism and we for the most part know how to control the fungus from growing. Even though ergots are a bad thing now and throughout history there are some good uses medicinally as well like; midwives used them to stop the bleeding after child birth and migraine headaches.

The Roman Catholic Church during the 1500’s was particularly preyed upon by ergotism. Wheat during this period was particularly expensive to the peasants, so they all grew and ate rye bread. Ergotism is more common on rye and it is extremely difficult to tell dark rye from ergot. If light rye was ground into flour and ergot was also ground with the light rye then the resulting color would be a dusty brown color and it could be easily identified that something was wrong with the flour. However, with dark rye and ergot being ground into flour, it’s not distinguishable and therefore was made into bread and eaten regularly. The peasants became continuously sick with ergotism, so they would go to the only place, they new; the Church and God (Hill, SP 2007).

The Catholic Church uses Saints for miraculous cures or devastating plagues. Saint Anthony is the Saint that the Church chose to accommodate for ergotism even though the Church didn’t know what ergotism was, they called it “Saint Anthony’s Fire”. Saint Anthony's FireSaint Anthony is also associated with another disease from Ancient Egypt that had close to the same symptoms, if not, the exact same. The Church has money and therefore was able to afford wheat flour. Thus, when the peasants went to the Church for help, they actually received help. The peasants ate wheat bread which wasn’t infected with ergot, unlike the rye bread which was, and therefore were actually cured. Then the peasants would go back to where they were living and began to become ill again because they are eating rye bread and therefore began to have the same symptoms. The people thought that it was God that was curing them through Saint Anthony and therefore many turned to the Church. Today we know that it was because the people weren’t eating the ergot rye bread and therefore were flushing the ergot out of their systems.

Staring from 1865 up to the Communist Revolution, Russia collected data of its peoples, crops and weather (Matoissian, 1989, p. 5.1). It was with this data that interference with areas in Russia that were largely dependent on rye was able to lower birth rate mortalities. Rye is a hardy grass that grows well in Russia, but unfortunately, the weather conditions are just right for ergot growth as well. By the mid nineteenth century the Russians knew about the dangers of ergotism (Matossian, 1986, p 475). Russians for the last two centuries at this time had the highest infant mortality rate in all of Europe (Matoissian, 1989, p. 5.1). For every one thousand births approximately 260 deaths occurred because of ergotism (Matossian, 1986, p 475). Ergotism can easily move from the blood system to a mother’s milk sacks so the children were drinking potent amounts of alkaloids (Matoissian, 1989, p. 5.1). Thanks to the data that the Russians started in the 1860’s the mortality rates of infants went down dramatically over the next century and today are down by an astonishing 26.90% (Russian Demographics, 2007). From the 260 deaths per every one thousand to only about 11.6 deaths per everyone thousand thanks to knowing where and how to combat ergot on plants is incredible.

The present impact of ergot is minimal. Today we have discovered a solution to “sterilize” ergots from rye seeds. A type of floating method has been devised of a solution approximately 30% potassium chloride and is pored over the rye seeds and then stirred. The ergot stage is buoyant and will float to the top of the mix and can be easily skimmed off the top, which in turn will minimize the amount of infected seeds that are planted every year (University of Hawaii, Botany 135). Today we still extract medicinal products out of ergot. Ergotamine is used as a headache and migraine reliever and Ergonovine is used to control postpartum hemorrhaging and can cause contractions of the uterus (University of Hawaii, Botany 135). However, women used the latter use scene the seventeenth century.

An interesting fact is that lysergic acid amide, or LSD a very powerful hallucinogen, can also be derived from ergot. Lulow Hoffmann, a Swiss chemist during the 1950’s, first discovered the drug while working on ergot. He accidentally absorbed a solution that ergot was soaking in, through his finger tips. He reported that for several months after this encounter when ever he turned on the water facet he didn’t see water coming out, but rather he saw blood (Hill, FA 2007). The hallucinogenic compound in ergot is an alkaloid, and all alkaloids are more or less soluble in water; but the toxic ones in ergots are less soluble than the hallucinogenic ones (Fungi as Parasites). LSD doesn’t occur in ergots but is a semi-synthetic derivative made in the lab from lysergic acid amide (Fungi as Parasites).

Even though today ergot and ergotism isn’t as large of a problem as it once was, it is still found throughout the world and can still be a very large nuisance. I was collecting wild grasses not to far from where I live in Aurora, Colorado and I came across it in the fields. Ergot is still prevalent today, we just know how to watch for it, and we can now easily get rid of the infected plants. People can still die from ergotism or lose limbs or have hallucinations, but it’s much less common. People should just be more careful of what they eat and hopefully if they bye rye bread from the grocery stores especially dark rye bread they will be able to trust the producer who made the bread. For the most part today ergot is used for the good things it does and can be found and taken care of so the bad things don’t happen.

For more information on Ergot and Ergotism look up these sources:

  1. Matoissian, M. Poisons of the Past/Ergotism 5.1. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989 http://www.uic.edu/classes/osci/osci590/5_1Poisons%20of%20the%20Past%20Ergotism.htm

  1. Matossian, Mary Kilbourne Slavic Review: Vol. 45, No. 3 p. 457. Climate, Crops, and Natural Increase in Rural Russia, 1861-1913. Copyright 1986 The American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. http://www.jstor.org/view/00376779/di000529/00p0098d/0

  1. Russian Demographics 2007. Russia Infant mortality rate: total: 11.06 deaths/1,000 live births male: 12.6 deaths/1,000 live births female: 9.42 deaths/1,000 live births (2007 est.) http://www.indexmundi.com/russia/infant_mortality_rate.html

  1. University of Hawaii. Ergot of Rye – I: Introduction and History. Lecture of Botany 135. http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/BOT135/LECT12.HTM

Fungi as Parasites. Destructive Fungal Parasites. Ergotism. http://www.angelfire.com/wizard/kimbrough/Textbook/Ergotism_blue.htm#TOP

*NOTE: it should also be noted that I learned much of my knowledge from two classes that I have taken here at Colorado State University both taught by Dr. Jo Hill: Plants and Civilizations and Plant Pathology. So I defiantly give him lots of credit.