Ye Older Bio Warefare: The effects of climate change on hallucinogens (Part 2)

Last week I talked about the effect of climate change on hallucinogens in the Solanacea family and their link to American colonial history. In the post, I commented on how living in New England, American colonial history is everywhere you walk, sit and breathe, and for some living in the area, it can end up rather old hat.

For those living on the East Coast, who may have tired of colonial American history (how many times can you fight traffic to see where the Pilgrims landed?) there is an even more enticing history to engage yourself with: the Renaissance. Now one might imagine that a novice historian might want to make a trip to Italy to surround themselves in Renaissance history –visit the estates, see the fine works, take up playing the lute. But why waste the money when there is a far better way to engage in this history in one afternoon: the King Richard’s Faire.

Every Fall, King Richard’s Faire descends on Carver Massachusetts. The consumption-focused, creative anachronism that is the King Richard’s faire has become a staple for New Englanders in the Fall, much like haunted hay rides and apple picking. LARPers, lonely computer programmers and local families alike show up to joust, speak in old English (or so they seem to think), show off their abundant bosoms and eat large turkey legs (a New World food).

Never willing to miss an opportunity to eat fried dough (another New World delight) or challenge my Navy-trained sharpshooter friend to an axe-throwing competition (P.S. she won), I set out to tackle this historic travesty.

Let’s be honest though. King Richard’s Faire is hardly how it would have been back in the Renaissance, when a measly hangnail could render you gangrenous (ok, I’m being a little hyperbolic). Most of the caped participants in the faire had all their teeth, limbs and presumably were not afflicted by any common ailments that would have killed and maimed us 400+ years ago: smallpox, leprosy, cholera.

But let’s say you were recreating the Renaissance. You’ve spent the day working in the fields, trying to make gold out of lead, or painting a picture of some naked lady or fruit or something. You come home from a hard day and your busty (but toothless) wife/servant has baked you an elegant loaf of bread and maybe a mutton chop. Both delicious, no doubt, but within a few hours your stomach doesn’t feel very good. Great, you think, my busty wife/servant undercooked the beef again. But then you start to twitch, convulse, get hot all over and enter into a phase of mania and psychosis. If you keep eating your wife’s cooking (you idiot), gangrene will take your fingers and toes and a couple days later you will probably die (3).

I’m rather surprised they don’t include this creative element in King Richard’s Faire – though it may be challenging to throw axes while in a thumbless delirium.

It turns out, your little convulsive, gangrenous self is suffering from St. Anthony’s Fire (aka Ergotism), caused by an alkaloid secondary compound (aka nitrogen-containing defensive compound) produced by the Ergot fungus. Ain’t the old days great?

The Ergot fungus grows on rye and other grains and uses these alkaloids to keep animals from eating it (i.e. insects, cows and you, dummy).

This fungus has been harassing people since long before the Renaissance, but it is most popularly known now for introducing a Swiss chemist to lysergic acid diethylamide (aka LSD), a derivative of the fungus, which he accidentally synthesized and then ingested in the early 1940’s, leading to the crazy ‘60’s and the reason why we can never really have a reasonable conversation with our parents.

But how does climate impact this fungus? Ergot fungi in particular love humidity (think swimming-in-the-air levels) and are sensitive to changes in the climate (5).

In 2001, several reports of gangrene in the Arsi Zone of Ethiopia resulted in researchers discovering an outbreak of the Ergot fungus there. Locals described unusually moist and cloudy weather over the previous 3 years that investigators think helped perpetuate the fungus in this region. As locals were not familiar with this disease, they did not recognize it and consumed the infected grains (8), yuck.

Livestock when fed grains contaminated with this fungus have similar responses as people do (7) – though I’m not sure about the hallucinations, I think their ears just fall off. They are not nearly as good at expressing when they’ve been exposed as people (no writhing, no hollering), as most commonly they tend to get overheated and then sometimes die.

So, is climate change going to render us fingerless rubes with teatless cows?

Don’t panic yet though. In regions where this gnarly fungus is more common, grain cleaning technologies, a better understanding of its lifecycle and simple identification has reduced the impact on people and animals (1).

For livestock, farmers just need to pay attention. Cutting off the seed-heads of contaminated grains or diluting the feed with outside protein sources is enough to keep the cattle’s ears, tails and teats all intact (2). Waiting a month after harvesting can also help reduce the toxicity of the alkaloids (6).

Even in bad climate conditions, these are things that we have control over. But what are the anticipated effects of climate change on the Ergot fungus?

That is still not entirely clear. If a changing climate shifts the areas affected by this fungus, then regions not familiar with Ergot may not be prepared to identify and manage outbreaks (i.e. what happened in Ethiopia). For this reason, researchers have called for greater investigation into these fungi, how they will change with climate change and what regions will be most effected (4).

Personally, I’m all for more research. As much as I mock the historical inaccuracies of Renaissance fairs, I prefer my turkey legs and fried dough to the realities of lost limbs and hallucinatory biscuits.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She will not tell you about all the disgusting things she learned about Ergot fungi while researching this article, like how long it takes to lose your toes, the explosive diarrhea it can cause or how much is considered an allowable limit in our diet.

Further Reading:
(1) Ergot of Small Grain Cereals and Grasses
(2) BOARD-INVITED REVIEW: St. Anthony’s Fire in livestock: Causes, mechanisms, and potential solutions
(3) Toxic effects of mycotoxins in humans
(4) Further mycotoxin effects from climate change
(5) Relationship between sorghum ergot, sowing dates, and climatic variables in Morelos, Mexico
(6) Ergot Alkaloid Concentrations in Tall Fescue Hay during Production and Storage
(7) St. Anthony’s Fire in livestock: Causes, mechanisms, and potential solutions Table 1
(8) Laboratory studies on the outbreak of Gangrenous Ergotism associated with consumption of contaminated barley in Arsi, Ethiopia

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