Mycotoxins are harmful secondary metabolites produced by a range of widespread fungi belonging in the main to Fusarium, Aspergillus and Penicillium genera. But why should fungi produce toxins? And how is the biosynthesis of these toxins regulated? Several separate factors are now known to be capable of modulating mycotoxin synthesis; however, in this study, focussing just on mycotoxins whose regulatory mechanisms have already been established, we introduce a further factor based on a novel consideration. Various different mycotoxin biosynthetic pathways appear to share a common factor in that they are all susceptible to the influence of reactive oxygen species. In fact, when a fungus receives an external stimulus, it reacts by activating, through a well-defined signal cascade, a profound change in its lifestyle. This change usually leads to the activation of global gene regulators and, in particular, of transcription factors which modulate mycotoxin gene cluster expression. Some mycotoxins have a clear-cut role both in generating a pathogenetic process, i.e. fumonisins and some trichothecenes, and in competing with other organisms, i.e. patulin. In other cases, such as aflatoxins, more than one role can be hypothesised. In this review, we suggest an "oxidative stress theory of mycotoxin biosynthesis" to explain the role and the regulation of some of the above mentioned toxins.
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