The production of enough good-quality crops is essential to our existence. Plant diseases have ruined crops, bringing widespread famine. Most plant pathogens are fungi that cause tissue decay and eventual death of the host (Figure 13.25). In addition to destroying plant tissue directly, some plant pathogens spoil crops by producing potent toxins. Fungi are also responsible for food spoilage and the rotting of stored crops. For example, the fungus Claviceps purpurea causes ergot, a disease of cereal crops (especially of rye). Although the fungus reduces the yield of cereals, the effects of the ergot’s alkaloid toxins on humans and animals are of much greater significance: In animals, the disease is referred to as ergotism. The most common signs and symptoms are convulsions, hallucination, gangrene, and loss of milk in cattle. The active ingredient of ergot is lysergic acid, which is a precursor of the drug LSD. Smuts, rusts, and powdery or downy mildew are other examples of common fungal pathogens that affect crops.
Aflatoxins are toxic and carcinogenic compounds released by fungi of the genus Aspergillus. Periodically, harvests of nuts and grains are tainted by aflatoxins, leading to massive recall of produce, sometimes ruining producers, and causing food shortages in developing countries.