Mycotoxins: From Antibiotics to Biological Warfare Agents
Molds produce a number of powerful substances that can affect your health in beneficial or detrimental ways. It should come as no surprise that fungi produce potent biologically active compounds—after all, lysergic acid (the parent compound of LSD) is produced by a mushroom! And penicillin is a mycotoxin produced by the mold Penicillium, better known as an antibiotic.
Some mold compounds are volatile and released directly into the air, known as microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs). Fragments of the cell walls of molds (glucans) can also be inhaled and cause inflammatory respiratory reactions, including a flu-like illness called Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS).
But the most serious danger comes from highly poisonous agents called mycotoxins.
More than 200 mycotoxins have been identified from common molds. Mycotoxins interfere with RNA synthesis and may cause DNA damage.8 The mycotoxins that have probably received the most attention by researchers are the trichothecenes, produced by Stachybotyrs chartarum and Aspergillus versicolor. Mycotoxins, even in minute quantities, are lipid-soluble and readily absorbed by your intestinal lining, airways, and skin. Some are so poisonous that they have been studied and developed as biological warfare agents9 as far back as the 1940s. Aflatoxin and trichothecenes10 are prime examples.
Even spores that are no longer able to reproduce can still harm your health due to these mycotoxins—in other words, “dead” mold spores are every bit as dangerous as “live” ones. The spores do not produce the toxins—rather, it is thought that the toxins are produced when the spores are produced, by the mold colony. Scientists believe that mycotoxins are the organism’s way of holding a competitive edge by defeating other organisms that are trying to thrive in the same environment—like humans, for example.