The development of fungal endophytes of the genus Epichloë
in grasses results in the production of different groups of alkaloids, whose mechanism and biological spectrum of toxicity can differ considerably. Ergot alkaloids, when present in endophyte-infected tall fescue, are responsible for “fescue toxicosis” in livestock, whereas indole-diterpene alkaloids, when present in endophyte-infected ryegrass, are responsible for “ryegrass staggers”. In contrast, peramine and loline alkaloids are deterrent and/or toxic to insects. Other toxic effects in livestock associated with the consumption of endophyte-infected grass that contain ergot alkaloids include the “sleepy grass” and “drunken horse grass” diseases. Although ergovaline is the main ergopeptine alkaloid produced in endophyte-infected tall fescue and is recognized as responsible for fescue toxicosis, a number of questions still exist concerning the profile of alkaloid production in tall fescue and the worldwide distribution of tall fescue toxicosis. The purpose of this review is to present ergot alkaloids produced in endophyte-infected grass, the factors of variation of their level in plants, and the diseases observed in the mammalian species as relate to the profiles of alkaloid production. In the final section, interactions between ergot alkaloids and drug-metabolizing enzymes are presented as mechanisms that could contribute to toxicity.
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