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What Is a Mycotoxin?

By Deneatra Harmon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A mycotoxin is a toxic secondary metabolite, or organic compound, produced from fungi. Some common mycotoxins include aflatoxins, fumonisins, and vomitoxins. The toxin forms in areas of high heat and humidity, and threatens the health of crops. Mycotoxin levels can also compromise animal and human health if they are exposed. Scientists or other experts may rely on special tests to detect and prevent the spread of the fungi-based compound.

The mycotoxin derives from the fungi family that also grows yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. Fungi can easily develop in most crops because they feature spores, which often thrive in warm, moist climates. According to the National Corn Growers Association, a mycotoxin stands a greater chance of developing if humidity levels in an area range from 62% to 99%, and temperatures reach a minimum of 86° F (30° C).

Several types of toxic chemical products exist to contaminate food and feed, but some common ones include aflatoxins, fumonisins, and vomitoxins. Aflatoxins, which originate from molds in the Aspergillus family, may appear in cotton, corn, and tree nuts. This particular toxin may invade crops after a drastic climate change from dry to wet. Fumonisin molds, which are highly toxic to horses, swine, and poultry, come from the Fusarium family and commonly appear on white and yellow corn. Vomitoxins may form on rye, barley, and wheat, especially during weather transitions from cool to warm temperatures.

Also known as a toxic secondary metabolite, a mycotoxin most often appears in open spaces and damp storage areas. The chemical makes its way into farm fields to consume otherwise healthy crops, such as corn, peanuts, and wheat. Damage to the crops may occur during periods of drought, followed by periods of wet weather. Shriveled grains and kernel discoloration are some symptoms that indicate the presence of a mycotoxin. Grain storage areas are also susceptible to mycotoxin contamination, specifically during harvest backlogs, or when an overabundance of grains require longer drying times during the production process.

Exposure to mycotoxin levels can interfere with animal and human health. This likely occurs if the animal or human ingests high levels of the toxin through food such as grains. Depending on the type of toxic secondary metabolite, the moldy chemical may cause a disease known as mycotoxicoses. Mycotoxicoses may cause muscle weakness, or kidney and liver diseases.

Experts may conduct lab tests to check for toxic chemical products. Testing is often conducted through chemical analysis, which involves the collection of samples. Screening tests also help to identify the toxin.

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