Vol.2, No.6, 544-550 (2010) Natural Science
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
The characteristics of the chosen mycotoxins and their
toxic influence on the human and animal metabolism
Katarzyna Łazicka, Sławomir Orzechowski*
Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Agriculture and Biology Warsaw University of Life Sciences – SGGW ul. Nowoursynowska
Warsaw, Poland; *Corresponding Author: slawomir_orzechowski@sggw.pl
Received 23 December 2009; revised 10 March 2010; accepted 12 April 2010.
Mycotoxins are toxic secondary metabolites of
fungi belonging mainly to the Aspergillus,
Penicillium and Fusarium genera. They can be
formed in various agricultural produce in spe-
cific conditions. These natural and zootoxic
chemical compounds cause an array of dis-
eases in people and animals, i.e., mycotoxico-
ses. Depending on the type and dose, my-
cotoxins may cause liver, kidney, and lung
cancers, as well as damage to the immune sys-
tem, pathological changes in the nervous sys-
tem, and reproduction disorders. Many my-
cotoxins disrupt digestion process, cause vom-
iting, nausea, anorexia, skin irritation and der-
matitis, and even haemorrhages. A significant
threat to the health of animals and people can
be observed in the case of major infestation of
crop ears from which foodstuff or feed are then
produced. The ear infestation is facilitated by a
suitable humidity and temperature during the
growing season or while harvesting and storing
the agricultural produce, which enhances the
growth of mycotoxin-producing fungi. Suitable
agricultural treatment, crop rotation, proper
storing of crops in the conditions of limited
humidity after the harvest as well as regular
chemical analyses of the content of mycotoxins
minimize their consumption and, accordingly,
decrease the threat caused by these substances
to the human and animal health.
Keywords: Toxicology; Mycotoxins; Mycotoxicoses
Mycotoxins are low-molecular-weight secondary met-
abolites produced by moulds. These metabolites const-
itute various groups of chemical compounds which may
cause diseases or even death of an organism. However,
not all chemical compounds produced by fungi are my-
cotoxins. The term ‘mycotoxin’ was first coined in 1962
after an incident in which almost 100,000 turkeys died.
It was stated that the cause of such a high death rate of
turkeys was the process of feeding them with peanut
meal contaminated with the secondary metabolites of
fungi of the Aspergillus flavus genus [1]. Currently, ap-
proximately 400 compounds described as mycotoxins
are known, dozens of which are hazardous for the health
of people and animals. Mycotoxins as chemical sub-
stances are not only difficult to be identified, but also
difficult to be classified. The most important groups of
mycotoxins are as follows: aflatoxins, ergot alkaloids,
fumonisins, ochratoxins, trichothecenes, zearalenone and
derivatives, epipolythiodioxopiperazines (ETP).
Based on the intensity and action time, the symptoms
of mycotoxin poisoning are classified as acute, subacute,
or chronic poisoning. Acute poisonings have a violent
course and a clear reaction of the organism (e.g. the
death of turkey population). On the other hand, chronic
and subacute poisonings are caused by low doses of
mycotoxins entering an organism for a long time, and
they may cause e.g. liver cancer (aflatoxins) or kidney
disorders (ochratoxins). Mycotoxins are found more
often in those world regions in which less effective
methods of eliminating fungi in the plant production and
storing are applied (Africa, Asia, South America), as
well as in significantly undernourished regions and
where the inspection of food as far as the content of
mycotoxins is concerned is irregular.
Mycotoxins could be divided into 2 groups: the group
produced as a result of plant diseases in the vegetation
season and the group of metabolites formed during im-
proper storing of grain after the harvest. Mycotoxins
have adverse effects on plants, the biological productiv-
ity of agroecosystems, the quality of surface waters, as
well as on grassland and woodland ecosystems. Their
harmful effect on plants is based mainly on the inhibi-
K. Łazicka et al. / Natural Science 2 (2010) 544-550
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
tion of germination of seeds and growth of plants, par-
ticularly the growth of roots and root hair.
2.1. Aflatoxins
Aflatoxins are highly carcinogenic compounds as far as
fish, warm-blooded animals, and people are concerned.
The disease caused by these mycotoxins is called afla-
toxicosis and it can lead even to death. The symptoms of
chronic aflatoxicosis are liver cancer, immune system
damage, as well as other ailments. Liver, which is the
key organ in the mycotoxin detoxication, is the organ
exposed most to the influence of one of the forms of
aflatoxins, i.e., aflatoxin B1 (AFB1). Moreover, aflatox-
ins may cause certain negative changes in the lungs. The
development of lung cancer was observed in the workers
inhaling dust contaminated with AFB1 during the prod-
uction of peanuts [2]. The amount of aflatoxins eaten
with food is lower in the developed countries than in the
developing ones. This is connected mainly with the reg-
ular food inspections being performed in order to detect
aflatoxins, which in poorer countries, where food defi-
ciency is present, are very rare or are not carried out at
all. The high consumption of aflatoxins with food con-
tributes to the development of primary liver cancer 2 to 5
times more often than in the developed countries [3].
Dogs are particularly sensitive to aflatoxins, as even
relatively low doses of these mycotoxins in feed (0.5-1
mg per 1 kg b.m.) may cause their death. At doses rang-
ing from 0.05-0.3 mg/kg b.m. of aflatoxins, provided for
6 to 8 weeks, vomiting, depression, hepatitis, coma, and
jaundice are observed in dogs. Dogs are exposed to the
influence of aflatoxins most often due to the introduction
of grain contaminated with aflatoxins into feed produc-
tion, which for this reason cannot be used for the pro-
duction of food for people [4].
The extent and intensity of poisoning with aflatoxins
depend on age, sex, body mass, diet, resistance to infec-
tions, presence of other mycotoxins, as well as on phar-
macological agents in diet. Due to the differences in
sensitivity to aflatoxins in tests performed on animals, it
is difficult to explain the influence of aflatoxins on the
human organism. Mycotoxin AFB1 becomes active un-
der the influence of cytochrome P-450, present in liver
microsomes, in the presence of molecular oxygen and
NADPH. On the other hand, the active form of AFB1
may bond with DNA or proteins [5]. The AFB1-DNA
adducts cause the transversion mutation GC: TA.
Aflatoxins are found in the marketed animal feeds all
over the world, particularly in the North and South
Americas. Birdseed was the most contaminated feed
among all the types of products for domestic animals
probably due to the basic materials of this feed, which
are grains and hazelnuts. As much as 25% of birdseed
samples were contaminated with over 100 µg AFB1/kg,
which indicates the potential threat to the health of birds.
Feeds for dogs and cats contain small amounts of afla-
toxins. Almost all the feed samples that these mycotox-
ins were found in, contained less than 20 µg AFB1/kg [6].
Such a low level of aflatoxins in the feed does not cause
any symptoms of acute poisoning. However, the possible
future influence of these mycotoxins on the animal me-
tabolism should not be ignored.
2.2. Ergot Alkaloids
The chemical compounds belonging to this group of
mycotoxins are produced as a mixture of alkaloids in
sclerotia of the strains of Claviceps – Claviceps pur-
purea, which are common pathogens of various grass
species ears. The consumption of ergot or its spores was
found to be connected with the occurrence of diseases
even in the antiquity. In people, the disease known as
ergotism occurs after the consumption of products made
of grain containing significant amounts of sclerotia, usu-
ally as bakery products. Usually two types of ergotism
are diagnosed, i.e., gangrenous and convulsive (Saint
Anthony’s Fire). The gangrenous type ergotism causes
significant ischaemia of nose, ears, fingers and toes,
which leads to dry gangrene, whereas the convulsive
ergotism shows itself in the changes in behaviour, hy-
persensitivity, convulsions, and muscle tremor [7].
Penitrem A, which belongs to the group of ergot al-
kaloids, affects the functioning of the central nervous
system probably by the interaction with neurotransmit-
ters such as e.g. -aminobutyric acid (GABA) [8].
In animals the clinical symptoms of ergotism are as
follows: dry gangrenes, ulcerations, necroses, blindness,
convulsions, hypersensitivity and ataxia, and lactation
inhibition [6]. A number of ergot alkaloids cause con-
tractions of smooth muscles (e.g. uterus, blood vessels).
Among farm animals, sheep, pigs, poultry, and cattle are
exposed the most to the influence of these mycotoxins.
2.3. Fumonisins
Fumonisins occur in the natural environment in at least
three forms: B1, B2, and B3. They are found mainly in
feed and food produced from maize [9]. Their influence
on the living organisms is diverse; they may cause the
development of cancer in humans and animals together
with other mycotoxins (intensifying their negative action)
[10,11]. In horses and rabbits, fumonisins cause leu-
koencephalomalacia [12,13], and they disrupt sphingol-
K. Łazicka et al. / Natural Science 2 (2010) 544-550
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
ipid metabolism by the inhibition of (dihydro)ceramide
synthesis, causing the accumulation of sphinganine in
tissues, serum, and urine. The sphinganine accumulation
is responsible for the most of adverse effects of these
mycotoxins. The decrease in the sphingolipid complex
has a negative effect on the functions of a part of the
membrane proteins, such as e.g. folic acid transmitter
[14] and contributes to the occurrence of nervous system
disease symptoms [15].
2.4. Ochratoxin
Among the toxins produced by the Aspergillus and
Penicillum species, ochratoxin A (OTA) has a signifi-
cant meaning from the toxicological and economic
points of view. This mycotoxin is formed mainly as a
result of improper storing of grain. The most important
adverse changes caused by the consumption of food
contaminated with ochratoxin A are: kidney and liver
damage and immunosuppressive action [16]. Ochratoxin
A at the level of cellular metabolism affects the enzymes
connected with the metabolism of phenylalanine and
causes the inhibition of the mitochondrial synthesis of
ATP [17] and acceleration of the peroxidation of lipids
[18]. Due to the constitution of ochratoxin A (halogen
derivative of phenol), the action of this mycotoxin may
also result in the modification of bases constituting the
nucleic acids, which may cause mutations and contribute
to the development of carcinogenic diseases in the or-
ganisms exposed to its influence [19].
2.5. Trichothecenes
The name ‘trichothecenes’ includes almost 200 various
compounds characterised as mycotoxins, synthesised
mainly by fungi from the Fusarium family found on
infested ears. The most important and the most commo-
nly occurring representatives of this group of mycotox-
ins are deoxynivalenol (DON, vomitoxin), nivalenol
(NIV), diacetoxyscirpenol (DAS), and T-2. The typical
disease symptoms after the consumption of trichothe-
cenes are: vomiting, lack of appetite, diarrhoea, haemor-
rhages, the nervous and immune systems disorders, and
in case of direct contact dermatitis is observed. Tricho-
thecenes are exceedingly strong inhibitors of the protein
synthesis in eukaryotes. They inhibit all its stages: initia-
tion, elongation, and termination. Trichodermin was ide-
ntified as the first metabolite of the trichothecenes group
and its influence on the metabolism consists in the inhi-
bition of peptidyl transferase [20]. Trichodermin inhibits
peptidyl transferase through competing with it for the
binding site on a ribosome [21].
Among the naturally occurring trichothecenes, T-2
and diacetoxyscirpenol seem to be the most significant
ones in the studies on their toxicity in animals. The cy-
totoxic influence of these mycotoxins on organisms is
based on their negative influence on the immune system,
manifesting itself in the decreased resistance to infection
with other pathogenic microorganisms. As the final ef-
fect, a wide range of gastrointestinal, dermatological and
neurological symptoms are observed after the consump-
tion of these mycotoxins by animals [22]. In people, T-2
and diacetoxyscirpenol cause alimentary aleukia. The
symptoms of this disease are: dermatitis, vomiting, and
hematopoietic tissue disorders. The acute phase results
in oral cavity necrosis, nosebleed, vaginal bleeding, and
the nervous system disorders. Trichothecene mycotoxins
induce also asthma and allergenicity [23].
2.6. Zearalenone
The biological activity of zearalenone (ZEA) metabolites
is high. It can be generally stated that they act oestrogen-
like, though their actual toxicity is low. The LD50 of
zearalenone in rats is 10 g/kg, whereas in guinea pigs it
is 5 g/kg. For this reason, the more appropriate name
than mycotoxin for this group of compounds is phytoes-
trogen (or mycoestrogen). Zearalenone or its derivatives
have been patented as oral contraceptives for women, or
a drug preventing postmenopausal osteoporosis [24].
The link between the consumption of mouldy grain and
hyperestrogenism in pigs has been observed since 1920.
After the administration per os of even minor doses of
zearalenone to the sexually immature sows, oestrus-like
symptoms without the tolerance reaction and the in-
crease in the mass of certain parts of the reproductive
system of the examined sows were observed [25]. In
dogs, the studied concentrations of ZEA caused disrup-
tions in reproduction, miscarriages, and testicular atro-
phy and pathological changes in the reproductive system
in males [26,27]. Based on the results of epidemiological
studies performed in Canada and Scandinavia, it was
stated that the risk for human health after the consump-
tion of zearalenone is not high. The recommended safe
intake of zearalenone is estimated at the level of 0.05
g/kg b.m. daily. The level of zearalenone in consum-
ables is not checked. The presence of ZEA in diet may
cause various interactions with metabolic processes in
the organism, and its presence in diet together with other
important mycotoxins, such as fumonisins or trichothe-
cenes, is potentially a pathogenic factor. The manifesta-
tions of this action may be allergies or the influence on
the immune system of animals and people [28].
2.7. Epipolythiodioxopiperazine ETP
Characteristic features of the chemical structure of my-
cotoxins of the ETP group are the presence of disulphide
bridge that largely conditions their high reactivity and
adverse influence, and the presence of at least 1 aromatic
K. Łazicka et al. / Natural Science 2 (2010) 544-550
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
acid radical [29]. The most thoroughly characterized
mycotoxin from this group is gliotoxin, which is at the
same time a drug used e.g. in the treatment of non-al-
coholic fatty liver disease. Its action is based on the in-
hibition of the activity of the nuclear factor B (NF-B)
and activation of apoptosis through the inhibition of mi-
tochondrial ATP synthesis, which leads to the hyperpo-
larisation of mitochondrial membranes. Apoptosis was
provoked by gliotoxin in various cells of the immune
system (macrophages, lymphocytes T) [30,31]. Glio-
toxin inhibits also the activity of reverse transcriptase,
which may be used in the treatment of viral infections in
people and animals [32].
Due to its structure, gliotoxin as well as the remaining
mycotoxins of the ETP group may take part in the oxi-
dation and reduction reactions in cells, which may cause
the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and is,
beside the creation of disulfide bridges with proteins, the
second main cause of a significant toxicity of this group
of mycotoxins observed in animals and people. Table 1
presents the groups of mycotoxins which are the most
harmful to the organism, together with the chosen dis-
ease symptoms they cause.
The production of mycotoxins by various species of fu-
ngi occurring on agricultural produce happens frequently.
These fungi may grow on various plants and agricultural
materials at an appropriate humidity and temperature. In
the case of agricultural produce, the level of contamina-
tion changes by the year, depending on the weather and
other environmental factors. For example, aflatoxin is us
ually hazardous during dry years, as plants are then wea-
ker and become more susceptible to damage caused by
insects and other mechanical injuries. Therefore, it is im-
portant to use a proper cultivation technology in such
cases: proper fertilization, watering, gathering the crop
residue from the field (mainly from crops and monocot-
tyledon weeds), and using fungicides (usually only seed
dressing before seeding is performed in the conventional
and integrated agriculture). A significantly increased le-
vel of mycotoxins in agricultural produce is observed in
the case of using non-plough methods of cultivation and
direct seeding in comparison to plough cultivation, alth-
ough in favourable weather conditions this effect is not
very visible. Mycotoxins in agricultural produce may
appear only after noticing the growth of mould, however
not all moulds produce mycotoxins and the production
does not take place in all atmospheric conditions. There-
fore, an important element limiting the contamination
with mycotoxins is constant monitoring of agricultural
produce first and then of the agricultural materials and
food in order to eliminate excessively contaminated ma-
terial from subsequent stages of production of food and
animal feed.
Depending on the level of contamination with my-
cotoxins, agricultural produce may be:
1) completely destroyed (significant contamination),
2) destined for the production of feed for animals
(contamination threatens human health and life),
3) passed as fit for the production of food for people
(trace amount of mycotoxins or their lack).
Table 1. The list of adverse effects of the chosen mycotoxins.
Name Toxicity class to IARC* Symptoms/ disease entity
Aflatoxins I aflatoxicosis, primary liver cancer, lung neoplasm, lung cancer, failure of the immune system,
vomiting, depression, hepatitis, anorexia, jaundice, vascular coagulation
Ergot alkaloids - ergotism, gangrene, abortion, convulsions, lactation suppression, hypersensitivity, ataxia,
smooth muscle contractions, extensive saliva production, vomiting
Fumonisins II B
diseases of the nervous system, cerebral softening, pulmonary oedema, liver cancers, kidney
diseases, oesophagus cancers, anorexia, depression, ataxia, blindness, hysteria, vomiting,
Ochratoxins II B renal diseases, nephropathy, anorexia, vomiting, intestinal haemorrhage, tonsillitis, dehydration
Trichothecenes - nausea, vomiting, haemorrhages, anorexia, alimentary toxic aleukia, failure of the immune
system, infants’ lung bleeding, increased thirst, skin rash
Zearalenone - reproduction disruptions, abortions, pathological changes in the reproductive system
ETP - failure of the immune system, susceptibility to fungal infections, facial eczema, liver diseases,
skin and nail necroses
* IARC – International Agency for Research on Cancer
K. Łazicka et al. / Natural Science 2 (2010) 544-550
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
Moreover, it has to be kept in mind that giving con-
taminated feed to susceptible animals may lead to the
decrease in the speed of their growth, development of
diseases, or even to death. Foodstuffs produced from
meat or milk of animals that were previously fed with
feed contaminated with mycotoxins, may contain cumu-
lated mycotoxins, e.g. ochratoxin A present in the feed
for pigs is accumulated in the tissue of fattening pigs
[33]. Furthermore, biotransformations of mycotoxins are
also frequently observed in animals fed with the feed
contaminated with mycotoxins, e.g. aflatoxins AFB1
eaten by cows with feed undergo biochemical reactions
to aflatoxin M1 that is then found in milk.
People who eat properly, avoiding foodstuffs con-
taminated with moulds, are not exposed to mycotoxins.
The symptoms caused by the consumption of high
amount of mycotoxins are seldom found in the devel-
oped countries. Currently used methods of storing agri-
cultural produce and their processing, as well as produc-
tion of food aiming at the maximum limitation of devel-
opment of moulds and inactivation or bounding of the
already existing mycotoxins have contributed to this fact.
Actions that contribute to the limitation of mould devel-
opment at various stages of food production are based on:
preservation or pasteurization of food, and roasting of
grains at a high temperature, which unfortunately may
have adverse nutritional effects, i.e., the formation of
stable free radicals. On a small scale ozonization is used,
which by inhibiting the development of moulds de-
creases the level of e.g. aflatoxins and trichothecenes in
food materials [34]. The limitation of the development
of moulds is possible also by adding preservatives and
bioactive substances such as e.g. benzoic, acetic, or
propionic acids [35,36] to foodstuffs and feeds. On the
other hand, the process of lactic fermentation is an ex-
ample of the use of microorganisms to decrease the level
of mycotoxins in feeds and foodstuffs. During the pro-
duction of silages, the lactic fermentation bacteria con-
tribute to the biotransformation of mycotoxins into me-
tabolites which are not harmful to animals, and the low-
ered pH successively inhibits the development of mould
spores. The decrease in the amount of mycotoxins and in
the extent of infestation with moulds in the agricultural
produce may be achieved with the use of simple meth-
ods, even by sifting grains, since screenings (damaged
and poorly developed caryopses) are often more infested
with moulds and hence potentially contaminated with
mycotoxins to a higher degree than the fully developed
grains [37]. Positive effects in the reduction of the cho-
sen mycotoxins are produced by rinsing grains, e.g. with
1 M solution of sodium carbonate and distilled water,
since often the infestation with moulds and the my-
cotoxins themselves are localized on the grain surface
[38,39]. However, such treatment of grains requires
drying at further stages of their processing, which puts
the producers of feeds and foodstuffs at risk of making
additional costs.
Feed and foodstuff producers often use bioactive sub-
stances such as: antioxidants (vitamin A, C, E, selenium)
[40,41], chosen amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine,
tyrosine, phenylalanine) [42], and polyunsaturated fatty
acids [15,43] as diet supplements. Apart from increasing
the nutritive value and safety of feeds and foodstuffs by
completing the diet with vitamins, exogenous amino
acids, or necessary unsaturated fatty acids, these sub-
stances minimize the adverse effects of the chosen my-
cotoxins (e.g. T-2) on the human and animal organism.
In terms of their chemical composition, mycotoxins be-
long to compounds with a diversified constitution and
properties. They are produced by numerous species of
moulds, which makes it difficult to detect them in food.
The most important groups of mycotoxins are as follows:
aflatoxins, ergot alkaloids, fumonisins, ochratoxins, tric-
hothecenes, zearalenones, and epipolythiodioxopiperazi-
nes. They have diverse toxic effects on animals and
cause among others cancers, protein synthesis inhibition,
failure of the immune system, skin and mucosa irritation,
as well as other disorders. Usually mycotoxins enter an
organism per os due to the consumption of food con-
taminated with them, through the respiratory system, or
by direct contact with the skin. In the developing coun-
tries, the contamination of food and animal feed with
mycotoxins is a significant problem. In the industrialized
countries, appropriate techniques meant for harvesting
and storing of agricultural produce and for the produc-
tion of food and animal feed have been developed,
which has significantly limited the occurrence of my-
cotoxicoses in people and animals A considerable prob-
lem to be solved is the unification of regulations and
standards concerning the contents of certain mycotoxins
all over the world, as well as the elaboration of cheap
and reliable diagnostic tests for monitoring the contami-
nation of agricultural produce with mycotoxins at all
stages of the food production chain.
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