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

Ye Olde Biowarfare: how climate change is affecting hallucinogens (Part 1)

Growing up in New England, you are living, breathing and eating American history.

The place where you picnicked with your grandparents as a kid? That was the birthplace of the American Revolution. That graveyard you snuck into as a teenager on Halloween? That’s where Mother Goose is buried. That naked sex beach you “stumbled upon” last year? That was the location of two of the most useless civil war forts in American history.

And if you’re a disaffected teenager living on the East Coast, there are any number of rebellions to keep you intrigued. There was the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, fought over…whiskey. The Boston Tea Party in Massachusetts fought over…tea. Then there was Bacon’s rebellion, which interestingly was not fought over the delectable treat, but rather was led by a fellow named Bacon against the English-supported Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. Once perceived as the first rumblings of American separatism, scholars now see the rebellion as more of a power play between rivals resulting in the indiscriminate murder of Native Americans. Let’s just say, not our proudest moment as future Americans.

Beyond the monstrous behavior stemming from this rebellion, Bacon’s rebellion is notable for one other reason: it was the first (only?) recorded use of drugs as a bioweapon in the American fight against the British.

It all centered on a weed that grew in Jamestown, called the Jamestown Weed (now called Jimson Weed), which was known for its hallucinatory effects. The colonists, irate with the British government, cooked the young weed into a boiled salad (yes, they boiled salads back then, weirdos) and served it to several British soldiers who were sent to Jamestown to quell the uprising.

Robert Beverly reported in The History and Present State of Virginia, that the soldiers “turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.” (1)

After a little over a week, the soldiers returned to their normal state, remembering nothing. Though this might sound like an amusing escapade for those of you who enjoy chemical alterations to your reality, you should be warned that the Jimson Weed then was most likely nothing like the Jimson Weed growing wild now. And this has everything to do with climate change.

To understand the effect of climate change on Jimson Weed, you need to know about two alkaloid compounds: atropine and scopolamine. Both of these compounds have hallucinatory effects and they are extremely poisonous when taken in pretty low doses (so please don’t try this at home). Atropine is more widely used in medicine today, while scopolamine was used historically to induce twilight sleep (aka amnesia) in birthing mothers, and later as an unsuccessful truth serum (it’s hard to extract a confession from someone who is screaming in terror because their body is being devoured by voracious insects – a popular hallucination).

It turns out that higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes Jimson Weed plants grow much larger (2), and increases scopolamine concentration in their tissues, while leaving atropine stagnant. Meanwhile, increasing temperature has the opposite effect (atropine goes up, scopolamine stays the same). If we combine carbon dioxide levels, temperature and even the age of the plant, it becomes even more complex, as sometimes atropine concentration goes down (older plants under lower temperature and higher carbon dioxide levels) and sometimes scopolamine concentration goes up (younger plants under higher temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels) (3). Yikes!

Is it possible that other plants that create similar noxious and hallucinatory chemicals will be changed in a similar fashion with climate change?

Perhaps. A study on the related (and equally toxic) Belladonna in the 1950’s suggested that the percent of alkaloids in the dried plant increased with the age of the plant and had an ideal temperature (with the greatest percentage of alkaloids) at 73 degrees Fahrenheit, with reduced percent alkaloids at higher and lower temperatures (4).

Sadly though research in the 1950’s was seemingly a little more casual, as they never state which alkaloids they measured (Atropine? Scopalamine? Hyoscyamine?) and they state in their methods that they analyzed their data “mathematically”. Studies these days actually require you to publish what “math” you used. Oh to be a scientist in 1956….

So, is it possible that the Jimson Weed fed to those poor British soldiers was a less noxious form of the one found today?

Given that the colonists picked the plant while it was young, in an environment that had lower carbon dioxide and lower temperature than today, it might have been. Which may explain why when unruly teenagers attempt to reenact this aspect of the revolutionary war today, they end up like this. Much like all good things, they just don’t make Jimson Weed like they used to. Now, sadly, it’s deadly.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She wants to remind the readers that Jimson Weed, Belladonna and many other related plants are poisonous and will kill you, so please do not eat them. She realizes that readers may have hoped for an article on more popularly consumed Biological hallucinogens such as peyote or mushrooms. She encourages you to stay tuned for future blog posts in which she will address the effect of climate change on the Ergot fungus (required for LSD). Turns out climate change is going to mess with all biological organisms, but especially your stoner neighbor next door. Poor guy.

Further Reading:
(1) The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts.
(2) The Effects of Elevated CO2 on Plants: Flower, Fruit and Seed Production
(3) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for

(4) Influence of the temperature on growth and alkaloid content of first-year Atropa belladonna L.

The paradox of scientific research

Minda’s note: While I am hiking the Himalayan mountains this week, my friend and fellow scientist, Olivia Yu from UC Davis agreed to fill in for me.  She asks the paradoxical question: can ecologists also be environmentalists?  See below for her thoughts on the topic….

The paradox of scientific research by Olivia Yu

[The purpose of this article is not to denigrate research, scientists, or the field of climate change; simply to make a case to include environmental awareness to general science education.]

The paradox of doing science is the quantity of natural resources used in the process. Present- day scientific research generally requires copious and continual input of natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. Many projects are energy and resource-intensive, i.e., transportation to remote locations and long-term monitoring. Yet, this paradox is most apparent in the field of climate change science, where the study of environmental changes requires substantial expenditure of natural resources, which contributes to further climatic changes. Field experiments often require considerable energy input to simulate the effect of a future world with varying degrees of temperature increases. Many experiments use nonrenewable resources such as oil or natural gas to observe these changes.

For example, in the famous Harvard Forest where climate change research has been occurring for the past 15 years, one current experiment applies a constant stream of a forced warm air through a section of the forest to simulate a warmer climate in the future. Likewise, ecological research related to climatological changes is located in remote locations by definition, such as the Arctic and Antarctic. Transportation to either poles and importation of fuel, food, and materials and supplies to conduct research require use of fossil fuels. Particularly because ecological studies span multiple seasons, the acquisition of this data translate to a high carbon footprint and thus, greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Regardless of the relationship to climate science research, laboratory work, particularly when microbiological/genetic techniques are employed, necessitates large quantity of disposable items and energy-dense chemicals. The production of these items and proper disposal adds to the carbon footprint of a research project. Beyond the data collection stage, data analysis may be even more energy-intensive. The processing of large data sets, which include modeling, can require significant computing power.

However, not all is doom and gloom. With a new generation of scientists, who are more environmentally conscientious, conventional methodologies are evolving to decrease energy inputs to address biological and climatological questions. Several of the modifications include reusing or decreasing use of disposable materials, processing of data off-site and during off- peak hours, increasing use of modeling over empirical research, and collecting data remotely. Despite the fact that some of these alterations are due to shrinking budgets; the silver lining is the promotion of data efficiency (collection of sufficient data for statistical power) and cohesiveness. Over-collection of data wastes resources, time, and money. Equipment sharing can lead to more collaboration among scientists within departments. Also, scientists are increasingly aware of the carbon footprint of transportation, not to mention the time, and thus, are organizing more teleconferences and webinars. Departmental managers are encouraging principal investigators to periodically purge samples in storage in the name of energy efficiency.

One of the strongest assets of climate scientists is their interdisciplinary background, which contributes to a more holistic approach to addressing research questions and self-assessing the impact of their research to the human population and the natural environment. So, a challenge for you, the reader: what will you modify to decrease the carbon footprint of your work environment? If you are a scientist, will/have you consider the environmental impact of your research? If so, will you alter your research methodology to decrease resource use, especially non-renewables, to address your research goals? Furthermore, if you are a principal investigator, are you willing to purge your data- once it is published of course- in the name of energy conservation?

PS. The original title of this piece was ‘Scientists are not treehuggers,’ but I thought that would be too easily misinterpreted and misrepresent scientists as a population who are genuinely interested in studying the environment. I am not looking to pick a fight nor am I interested in idolizing treehuggers, but I am a scientist who studies climate change and likes to have trees to hug in the future.