Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
An ergot kernel occurs when a normal grain kernel is replaced by a sclerotium , or fungal body, as a result of infection by the Claviceps purpurea fungus. Ergot can affect a number of cereals and grasses, including rye (its most common host), triticale, wheat and barley. It affects oats only rarely. When the ergot kernel drops to the ground it remains dormant until proper conditions trigger its fruiting phase upon which a tiny mushroom is formed which releases the fungal spores.
Ergot infection causes a reduction in the yield and quality of grain and hay produced, and if infected grain or hay is fed to livestock it causes a disease called ergotism.
Ergot contains alkaloids of the ergoline group, which have a wide range of activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission. Among those who studied ergot and its derivatives was Albert Hofmann, whose experiments led to the discovery of LSD, a powerfully hallucinogenic ergot derivative that affects the serotonin system. Ergot was used to induce abortions and to stop maternal bleeding after childbirth, but these practices have been outdated.
Contrary to some rumors ergot contains no LSD. Its links to LSD are:
- LSD was first synthesised during research on the active ingredients of ergot.
- Lysergic acid, a raw material used in the synthesis of LSD, was and still is prepared from ergot.
The disease cycle of the ergot fungus was first described in the 1800s, but the connection with ergot and epidemics among people and animals was known several hundred years before that.
Human poisoning due to the consumption of rye bread made from ergot-infected grain was common in Europe in the Middle Ages.
It has also been posited — though speculatively — that the Salem Witch Trials were initiated by young women who had consumed ergot-tainted rye.
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