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Wheat infected with ergot fungus

Anna Gordon, National Institute of Agricultural Biology, and Fernan Federici, University of Cambridge

Wheat infected with ergot fungus

Download this image from Wellcome Collection.

Confocal micrograph of wheat stigma hairs (blue) infected with ergot fungus (light pink). The stigma is the female part of the plant. The plant is fertilised by the (male) pollen grain, which sticks to a stigma hair causing growth of a pollen tube into the plant's ovary, causing an embryonic wheat grain to develop.

What is ergot fungus?

Ergot is a type of fungus from the genus Claviceps. It infects flowering grasses and cereals, including wheat, via a spore. The fungal spore lands on the stigma of plants and germinates, mimicking the growth of pollen into the plant's ovary. The fungal hyphae, shown in pink, highlight the path the fungus takes through the stigma hairs to colonise the whole plant flower. The fungus forms a dark, purplish sclerotium (a dense mass of branched hyphae) called an ergot in place of the developing wheat grain.

Why is ergot linked to St Anthony's fire?

Ergotism is the condition caused by the ingestion of ergots, which are highly toxic, and cause symptoms such as spasms, hallucinations, psychosis, itching and gangrene. Ergot poisoning is one of the proposed explanations of bewitchment. In the Middle Ages, monks of the Order of St Anthony were known for treating this condition, and so the illness became known as St Anthony's fire. Anna Gordon's research investigates natural sources of resistance to ergot infection in plants, looking for a way to prevent human and animal poisoning.

st anthony