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Ergot: from witchcraft to biotechnology.

The ergot diseases of grasses, caused by members of the genus Claviceps, have had a severe impact on human history and agriculture, causing devastating epidemics. However, ergot alkaloids, the toxic components of Claviceps sclerotia, have been used intensively (and misused) as pharmaceutical drugs, and efficient biotechnological processes have been developed for their in vitro production. Molecular genetics has provided detailed insight into the genetic basis of ergot alkaloid biosynthesis and opened up perspectives for the design of new alkaloids and the improvement of production strains; it has also revealed the refined infection strategy of this biotrophic pathogen, opening up the way for better control. Nevertheless, Claviceps remains an important pathogen worldwide, and a source for potential new drugs for central nervous system diseases.

Haarmann, T.; Rolke, Y.; Giesbert, S.; Tudzynski, P. 2009. Ergot: from witchcraft to biotechnology. Molecular Plant Pathology 10(4): 563-577.