The fumonisins (FBs) are a group of closely related mycotoxins that are prevalent in maize. They were isolated from strains of Fusarium moniliforme (Sheldon), which were implicated in the aetiology of human oesophageal cancer in the Transkei, South Africa. Their discovery explained the cause of equine encephalomalacia, or 'hole in the head' syndrome, when it was found by feeding trials in horses that they elicited the disease. Subsequently, they were found to cause hepatic cancer in rats and pulmonary oedema in pigs, with most animal species tested showing liver and kidney damage. FB1 is the most important of the group and, although poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, its action is at the cellular level, affecting sphingolipid metabolism. Ceramides derived from sphingosine metabolism are cell regulatory factors affecting, among other things, DNA synthesis. Because FB1 has a close molecular resemblance to sphinganine, it interferes with ceramide biosynthesis and, hence, the processes that it regulates, which is thought to explain its carcinogenic properties. Studies on the FBs are still at a relatively early stage, but it is already clear that they play an important role in animal mycotoxicoses and, by implication, in human disease. A more positive aspect is that they will be used in elucidating the role of sphingolipids in cellular regulation.
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