Aspergillus fumigatus Fres. G.

by Giorgio Samorini

Originally published in Eleusis, n. 8, August 1997, pp. 38-43

BOTANICAL DESCRIPTION: Colonies on Czapek agar at 25°C attaining a diameter of 3-5cm within 7 days, consisting of a dense felt of dark green conidiophores intermixed with aerial hyphae bearing conidiophores. Conidial heads typically columnar. Conidiophores short, smooth-walled, green, particularly in the upper part. Vesicles broadly clavate, 20-30 nm in diam. Phialides directly borne on the vesicle, often greenishly pigmented, 6-8 x 2-3 nm. Conidia globose to subglobose, 2.5-3.0 nm in diam., green, rough-walled to echinulate. Raper & Fennel (1965) placed isolates with smooth ellipsoidal conidia in a separate variety ellipticus (Samson et al., 1981).  

HABITAT: On decomposing material, ground, seeds, fruits, ensilates, hay, flours, cellulose material, wood.

CULTIVATION: Colonies on MEA growing faster and sporulation heavier. Thermophyle: it grows between 18 and 55°C and the optimum is between 37 and 43°C. It tolerates pH variations, but the optimum is between 3.7 and 7.8.

ETHNOMYCOLOGICAL DATA: Different species of moulds, mostly belonging to the Aspergillus and Penicillium genera, produce mycotoxins, characterised by specific activities on the animal and human nervous system. The ergot alkaloids produced by A. fumigatus and by other micro-organisms infesting flours or living among the spike caryopses of various Gramineae are particularly interesting.

The ergot alkaloids are mainly produced in the lower fungi of the Clavicipitaceae family, in particular in the Claviceps, Balansia, Acremonium genera, which are guest species especially of Gramineae and of Cyperaceae.

Ergot, Claviceps purpurea (Fr.) Tul., is unhappily famous because of the human massacres for which it was the direct responsible in the Middle Ages, in the collective poisonings known as "St. Anthony's Fire". Usually the poisoning develops in two forms, one is "gangrenous" and more serious, the other "convulsive" and hallucinatory, both due to the presence of the different types of ergot alkaloids (Bove, 1970; Colella, 1969; Giacomoni, 1985). Among these alkaloids, many of which are toxic, there are some, like ergonovine (Bigwood et al., 1979) and ergine that have psychoactive properties. In some species of Convulvulaceae of the Rivea (Turbina) and Ipomoea genera the seeds produce these alkaloids and are used in Mexico since pre-Columbian times as psychotropic agents during shamanic rituals (OTT, 1996).

We know of other cases in which the ergot alkaloids act as an entheogenic type psychoactive drug. For example, in the Peruvian Amazon basin where the plants of Cyperus prolixus (Cyperaceae) infected by Balansia cyperi Edg. (Clavicipitaceae) are added to ayahuasca to strengthen the visionary effect and are smoked for their hallucinogenic properties (Plowman et al., 1990). The Balanta of Guinea Bisseau, in Equatorial Africa, obtain a psychoactive potion from the root of the Securidaca longipedunculata Fres. tree (Polygalaceae) that contain elymoclavine and dehydroelymoclavine (Costa & Bertazzo, 1992; Samorini, 1996). The hypothesis by Wasson, Hofmann & Ruck (1978) is well-known. It considers the use of a psychotropic beverage made with a particular type of ergot as sacramental potion (kykeon) of the Eleusinian Mysteries of archaic and classic Greece. In particular, the ergot species Claviceps paspali Stev. & Hall have proved to produce water-soluble psychoactive alkaloids (Arcamone et al., 1960), therefore to be potentially usable as entheogenic source. Finally, the hypothesis has been recently put forward that ergot and its alkaloids would be the basic ingredients of Soma, the sacred intoxicating beverage of the Veda, the first Indian religious texts (Mort T. Greene, 1992, cf. Ott, 1994:133-139).

It is therefore possible that a whole group of ecstatic and possession states, of open-eyes visions and of sudden and variable emotional states caused in fact by ergot alkaloids associated with flours and Gramineae, were mixed and confused in that visionary, magic and superstitious world which was so typical of the European Middle Ages. They probably went unobserved or were interpreted as miraculous in several cases even by the victims of the poisoning: clinically clear symptoms, lost or, better, confused, in that seething of psychic experiences that characterised the medieval mentality (Samorini, 1991; Sannita, 1986).

The same species of Aspergillus and Penicillum may also produce tremorgernic compounds, mostly alkaloids with indolic nucleus, as well, typically causing symptoms such as tremors and violent jolts (Ciegler & Pitt, 1970; Moreau, 1979). There are frequent cases of animal poisoning due to the swallowing of Gramineae whose effects are of the "tremorgenic" type, and it is probable that this class of compounds could have been responsible for the human collective poisonings in the past. It is opportune to remind that tremorgenic compounds with indolic nucleus (paspaline, paspalicine) have also been found in Claviceps paspali, although in low concentration (Gallagher et al., 1980).

The hypothesis of the "cursed loaves", that is loaves and flours contaminated by these moulds, was considered in several studies with an anthropological and folkloric approach to the phenomenon of possessions and collective hysteria in medieval times (Camporesi, 1983; Baldini, 1988:120-4; Ginzburg, 1989:284-9; Matossian, 1989).

In August 1951 in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a village in southern France, there was a case of food poisoning involving over 300 people almost simultaneously, during the same night. Screaming people poured into the streets, seized by leaps of violent hysteria, overwhelmed by visual hallucinations and other sensorial illusions, as well as convulsions and contractions; most of them were terrified, while the ambulance sirens wailed. After four days of collective delirium there was the first death; six more followed. The psychic effects disappeared in a couple of months (Fuller, 1968; Giraud, 1973). From the beginning it was clear that it was a food poisoning, whose common agent was the bread made by the same baker. Neither of the initial hypotheses did ever convince completely: that of the presence of ergot's sclerotia in the flour (Gabbai et al.) and that of the presence of methyl-mercury, a well-known fungicidal agent (Bouchet, 1980). At thirty years from the occurrence, C. Moreau (1982) put forward a new hypothesis, making reference to A. fumigatus, a notorious mould pullulating in grain victuals.

A mould is seldom just psychoactive. It is more frequent that it may be poisonous and psychoactive at the same time and even more frequent perhaps that it may have poisonous properties only. In practice, in poisonings caused by bread and flour moulds one never knows what it may happen: people in ecstatic attitudes or poisoned people dying with stabbing leaps and tremors (Samorini, 1991).

BIOCHEMICAL DATA: A.fumigatus produces different mycotoxins, among which ergot alkaloids, tremorgenic alkaloids, and other indole alkaloids. The mycelium of this mould produces the clavine alkaloids fumigaclavine A, fumigaclavine B (= deacethylfumigaclavine A) and festuclavine, with the quantitative ratio 10:0.5:1 (Spilsbury & Wilkinson, 1961). It produces also fumigaclavine C and the tremorgenic compounds verruculogen and TR-2 (Cole et al., 1977). The addition of l-tryptophan in the cultures implies a remarkable increase of the quantity of the produced ergot alkaloids (Rao & Patel, 1974). Some strains of A.fumigatus produce also tremorgenic indole alkaloids, among which the 6-methoxy-indole compounds fumitremorgine A and B (Eickman et al., 1975; Yamazaki et al., 1974, 1975a, 1975b) and metabolites associated to the tryptoquivaline (Yamazaki et al., 1976). For the complex chemistry of the ergot alkaloids, cfr. A. Hofmann (1964).

PHARMACHOLOGICAL DATA: This fungus is strongly poisonous for cattle feeding on hay stored when already infected, with symptoms of diarrhoea, irritability and anomalous behaviour and with some cases of death (Cole et al., 1977). It is one of the Aspergillus that causes pulmonary aspergillosis in humans and animals (birds are particularly prone to this disease). It also causes allergies.

The ergot alkaloids have a large spectrum of central and peripheral pharmacodynamic actions. They interfere with different receptor sites to stimulate and/or inhibit the effector structures. The central actions include stimulating activities, probably based on dopaminergic mechanisms and, also, inhibitory effects on the vasomotor tonus, on heart beating and on circulatory reflexes. Among the peripheral actions there are the two main classic properties of the ergot alkaloids, vasoconstriction and the uterotonic effect. As for the complex pharmacology and toxicology of the ergot alkaloids we refer the reader to some basic texts (Spano & Trabucchi, 1978; Goldstein et al., 1980; Drago, 1990).  


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Specie / Species alcaloidi dell'ergot ergot alkaloids rif.bibl./ bibl.ref.

Ascochyta imperfecta Peck alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Aspergillus clavatus Desmaz. acido lisergico lysergic acid 1
Aspergillus conicus Bloch. alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Aspergillus flavus Link. ergocriptina, agroclavina, elimoclavina

ergocryptin, agroclavine, elymoclavine

Aspergillus fumigatus Fres. agroclavina, elimoclavina, festuclavina, fumigaclavine

agroclavine, elymoclavine, festuclavine, fumigaclavine

1, 6
Aspergillus nidulans (Eidam)Wint alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Aspergillus versicolor (Vuill.)Tirab. alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Dematium chodati Nechitsch alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Geotrichum candidum Link ergosina, agroclavina, elimoclavina, acido lisergico ergosine, agroclavine, elymoclavine, lysergic acid 2
Isariopsis griseola Sacc. alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Mucor hiemalis Wehm. ergosina ergosine 2
Mucor subtilissimus Berk. alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Penicillium chermesinum Biourge costaclavina costaclavine 3
Penicillium expansum Link. alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Penicillium granulatum Bain. alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Penicillium roqueforti festuclavina, isofumigaclavina festuclavine, isofumigaclavine 4, 5
Penicillium rugulosum Thom. alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1
Rhizopus arrhizus Fischer fumigaclavina B fumigaclvine B 6, 1
Rhizopus nigricans Ehramb. ergosinina, ergosina, agroclavina ergosinine, ergosine, agroclavine 1, 2
Streptomyces rimosus Finlay Noragroclavina noragroclavine 1
Trichochoma paradoxa Jungh alcaloidi clavinici clavine alkaloids 1

Alcuni microorganismi che producono alcaloidi dell' ergot / some microorganisms producing ergot alkaloids [(1) Willaman & Li, 1970; (2) El-Refai et al., 1970; (3) Agurell, 1964; (4) Ohmomo et al., 1975; (5) Scott et al., 1976; (6) Spilsbury et al., 1961]

genere / genus famiglia / family ordine / order classe / class

Tassonomia dei generi considerati
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