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What are mycotoxins?

Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by filamentous fungi. They possess comparatively low molecular masses. Currently, scientific knowledge encompasses around 500 unique mycotoxins, which encompass a diverse array of structural variations and physicochemical properties. Prominent mycotoxins comprise patulin, zearalenone, Alternaria toxins, aflatoxins, ochratoxins, fumonisins, and ergot alkaloids; they also include trichothecenes such as T-2 toxin, HT-2 toxin, and deoxynivalenol (DON). Agricultural commodities and animal feedstuff frequently serve as reservoirs for mycotoxins, which are ubiquitous toxic substances that may originate in the field due to improper storage practices and particular weather conditions. The potential economic loss and serious health problems that may result from ingestion in both people and animals make mycotoxin contamination a very serious matter. Cancer causing properties, immune system suppression, neurological system damage, and liver and kidney diseases are all part of the list. The constant need to address the issue of mycotoxin contamination necessitates the revision of laws and regulations.

Types of mycotoxins

The mycotoxins produced by fungi can be classified into several categories, including aflatoxins (AFs), ochratoxin A (OTA), patulin (PT), sterigmatocystin (STC), trichothecenes (TCTs), fumonisins (FBs), deoxynivalenol (DON), zearalenone (ZEA), alternariol (AOH), tenuazonic acid, and alternariol monomethyl ether.

Around the world, A. flavus and A. parasiticus are the primary producers of aflatoxin, which is a mycotoxin that is extremely hazardous to human health. A total of four primary categories are included in it, including B1, B2, G1, and G2. A. flavus has been determined to be the causative agent for the synthesis of B toxins, with B1 being the most widespread. B1 is known to possess both genotoxic and highly carcinogenic properties. Maize and cotton produce higher quantities of AFs produced by A. flavus compared to other crops. Nevertheless, Aspergillus flavus (AF) colonies derived from A. parasiticus are commonly detected in groundnuts, usually referred to as peanuts. F-2 mycotoxin, often known as ZEA, is a distinct kind of mycotoxin. Several species of Fusarium produce toxic chemicals including deoxynivalenol (DON), T-2 toxin, HT-2 toxin, zearalenone (ZEA), and diacetoxyscirpenol (DAS). These toxins provide a substantial danger to farmers who raise animals and poultry.

FB1 and FB2 are the constituents of fumonisins, which are mycotoxins produced by Fusarium. Fusarium verticillioides is a fungus that mostly affects maize, wheat, and several other grains. It produces FB1, which is the most common toxin among the Fusarium molds. Additional evidence indicates that F. verticillioides and F. moniliforme are the causative agents for the synthesis of FB2, which has a structural resemblance to FB1. FB2 exhibits more cytotoxicity compared to FB1, and it further hinders the function of acylsphingosine transferase. Furthermore, maize and other commodities are contaminated by FB2 contamination.

When it comes to ochratoxins, there are three different kinds of ochratoxins that may be found in food commodities. These ochratoxins are referred to as OTA, OTB, and OTC. Penicillium verrucosum and species of Aspergillus, such as A. carbonarius and A. ochraceus, are responsible for the production of OTA, which is the mycotoxin that is detected in foodstuffs at the highest concentration.

The fungi Aspergillus, Byssochlamys, and Penicillium are responsible for the production of PT, which is commonly found in apples that have gone bad. It has been demonstrated that PT inhibits the growth of some germs through its antimicrobial properties. Because of the potential dangers to human health, a number of nations have imposed restrictions on the amount of PT that may be found in certain goods.

Chemical structure of some of the important mycotoxins.Chemical structure of some of the important mycotoxins. (Malhotra B D., et al., 2014)

Characteristics of Mycotoxins

Mycotoxins are a large family with a molecular weight of 200-500 kD with different chemical properties.

  • High efficiency: very low concentration can produce obvious toxicity
  • High stability: small molecule compounds, stable properties, high temperature resistance, acid resistance
  • Enrichment: resistance to chemical biological agents and physical inactivation
  • Specificity: the molecular structure is different, the toxicity is quite different
  • Synergy: The combined effect of multiple mycotoxins is higher than the cumulative addition of the effects of a single mycotoxin.

Application of Mycotoxins

Aflatoxin is a strong carcinogen and is related to the onset of liver cancer. The erythrenone in common corn has an estrogen-like effect. The ergotoxine secreted by clavieps purpurea has a strong effect of constricting arteries and blood vessels, resulting in limb necrosis. However, certain ergot preparations can be used as uterine contractors.

Mycotoxin test

Aflatoxins, also known as AF, are a series of secondary fungal metabolites that are generated by Aspergillus Flavus and Aspergillus Parasiticus under certain circumstances. They are the most extensively distributed group of toxins that lead to the contamination of food goods. Molds of the genus Aspergillus are found in a wide variety of foods and feeds, including milk, cheese, maize, peanuts, cottonseed, almonds, figs, cereals, and a number of other foods and feeds. Aspergillus usually grows on crops, such as grains and nuts. The ingestion of aflatoxin-contaminated feed by animals can occasionally result in the contamination of other foods, including milk, eggs, and meat products. Aspergillus can also be found growing on materials such as dirt, hay, and vegetation that has decomposed. The optimal circumstances for the growth of Aspergillus on organic materials are when the temperature is warm and when the substance has a high level of moisture (at least seven percent). Aflatoxin B1, B2, G1, and G2 are the most prominent members of the array of 18 distinct kinds of aflatoxins that have been found. There is a significant fluorescence produced by the aflatoxins when exposed to UV light (365 nm). B1 and B2 create a blue fluorescence, whereas G1 and G2 produce a green fluorescence. With AFB1 being the most powerful, AFG1 being the most carcinogenic, AFG2 being the most mutagenic, and AFG2 being the most immunosuppressive, the aflatoxins are known to be extremely poisonous. Aflatoxin B1, sometimes referred to as AFB1, is the most common and potent carcinogen among them. It has the ability to induce cancer in people and is mostly responsible for the development of liver cancer in animals. When cows ingest AFB1 as part of their diet, it undergoes a process that leads to the development of its hydroxylated metabolite, known as aflatoxin M1 (AFM1), which is then excreted in the milk production process. In the European Union (EU), there is a rule that restricts the amount of AFB1 in foods meant for direct human consumption to 2.0 μg/kg.

A number of different food items contain AFB1 at concentrations that are in the low sub-nanogram per gram range. Considering that low parts per billion (ppb) concentrations are often involved, it is necessary to have analytical procedures that are extremely sensitive in order to identify AFB1. Consequently, the approved techniques for AFB1 monitoring are the chromatographic analytical equipment, which include thin-layer chromatography (TLC) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) with a fluorescence or mass detector. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) are frequently used for routine screening of AFB1. These assays have the capability of processing a high number of samples in a single experiment, which makes them ideal for routine screening. Nevertheless, they include lengthy, arduous, and tiresome methods as well as cross-reactivity phenomena that, despite the fact that they occasionally might be beneficial for the evaluation of the whole toxicity, may result in false positive findings for the diagnosis of a single mycotoxin.


  1. Fernandes T., et al., Impact of Toxigenic Fungi: An Economic and Health Obstruction to Wellness in Mozambique, European Journal of Agriculture and Food Sciences, 2021, 3(5): 123-135.
  2. Malhotra B D., et al., Nanomaterial-based biosensors for food toxin detection, Applied biochemistry and biotechnology, 2014, 174: 880-896.
  3. Pandey A K., et al., Fungal mycotoxins in food commodities: present status and future concerns, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 2023, 7: 1162595.

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