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Publication | 2017

A Concise History of Mycotoxin Research

Toxigenic fungi and mycotoxins entered human food supplies about the time when mankind first began to cultivate crops and to store them from one season to the next, perhaps 10,000 years ago. The storage of cereals probably initiated the transition by mankind from hunter-gatherer to cultivator, at the same time providing a vast new ecological niche for fungi pathogenic on grain crops or saprophytic on harvested grain, many of which produced mycotoxins. Grains have always been the major source of mycotoxins in the diet of man and his domestic animals. In the historical context, ergotism from Claviceps purpurea in rye has been known probably for more than 2000 years and caused the deaths of many thousands of people in Europe in the last millennium. Known in Japan since the 17th century, acute cardiac beriberi associated with the consumption of moldy rice was found to be due to citreoviridin produced by Penicillium citreonigrum. This toxin was believed to be only of historic importance until its reemergence in Brazil a few years ago. Other Penicillium toxins, including ochratoxin A, once considered to be a possible cause of Balkan endemic nephropathy, are treated in a historical context. The role of Fusarium toxins in human and animal health, especially T-2 toxin in alimentary toxic aleukia in Russia in the 1940s and fumonisins in equine leucoencephalomalasia, is set out in some detail. Finally, this paper documents the story of the research that led to our current understanding of the formation of aflatoxins in grains and nuts, due to the growth of Aspergillus flavus and its role, in synergy with the hepatitis B virus, in human liver cancer. During a period of climate change and greatly reduced crop diversity on a global basis, researchers tasked with monitoring the food system need to be aware of fungal toxins that might have been rare in their working careers that can reappear.