Historical Background

Although mycotoxicoses have been known for a long time, identification of a specific mycotoxin as a causative agent for these illnesses was unknown in most of the incidences [reviewed in Bhatnagar et al. (2002)]. For example, at least one of the 10 plagues in ancient Egypt recorded in Exodus (and as early as 430 B.C.) could have been associated with mycotoxin-contamination of food. Since the ninth century, ergot-infected rye has (ergotism) afflicted large-populations in Europe, when ergotism was called ignis sacer (sacred fire) or St. Anthony's fire, because it was believed that a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Anthony would bring relief from the intense burning sensation caused by the mycotoxin (Van Dongen and DeGroot 1995).

Outbreaks of toxicoses associated with the ingestion of moldy foods and feeds by humans and animals have also been recorded in last century. Deaths of livestock were reported earlier from consumption of moldy corn in feed of horses in Illinois, Russia and swine in Southeastern United States (Christiansen and Kauffman 1969) in the 1930s. A well-documented example is the disease called alimentary toxic aleukia (ATA) that resulted in more than 5000 deaths in humans in the Orenberg district of the USSR during World War II, and the cause of later was found to be trichothecene mycotoxins. Modern myco-toxicology was not developed until the discovery of aflatoxins in the early 1960s as the causative agent in the peanut meal causing the "Turkey X" disease that killed more than 10,000 turkeys fed with the contaminated meal. Because aflatoxins are a series of highly potent carcinogens produced by commonly occurring Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus, research has focused new attention on mycotoxins. In the last 40 years, many new mycotoxins have been identified and characterized, and their biosynthetic origin in various fungi elucidated. It has been estimated that at least 25% of the world's agricultural product is contaminated with mycotoxins and certain diseases have been linked to ingestion of food and feed contaminated with mycotoxins. Recent evidence that indoor air pollution from toxigenic fungi may play a role in illnesses may implicate mycotoxins as having a more widespread role in chronic disease than was previously thought possible (CAST 2003).

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