Due to the fact that half of the Abbot lab (the questionable half) works with fungus I felt it only appropriate to post about Claviceps purpurea or ergot. For those of you unfamiliar with this interesting fungus, it is a fungal species that infects cereal and forage plants including rye, barley, and wheat. Ergot infection can cause a decrease in the yield of grain and more interestingly can cause some serious side effects on those humans and animals that consume ergot. The fungal infection produces an array of potent alkaloids as a byproduct, which if consumed can cause a whole host of biological problems. Those who accidentally ingest C. purpurea in their rye bread can experience symptoms including burning sensations in the limbs, gangrene, hallucinations, irrational behavior, convulsions, seizures, unconsciousness and even death. Needless to say ergotism (ergot poisoning) was a serious issue during medieval times and was known as “St. Anthony’s Fire” after an order of monks who helped care for those stricken.
In popular culture and historical theory it has been hypothesized that many instances of supposed ‘witchcraft’ were brought on by occurrences of ergotism. The hallucinations and irrational behavior are an excellent explanation for the witchlike behavior that was the cause of many an inquisition or witch burning during the middle ages and later. It has even by hypothesized that the Salem witch trials were brought on by severe cases of ergotism. Ergots alkaloid chemical structure as an analog of LSD explains the unfortunate symptoms associated with ergot poisoning. So next time you eat your reuben sandwich on rye bread and casually start to hallucinate you will know why….