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J Toxicol Environ Health. 1996 May;48(1):1-34.

Toxicology of deoxynivalenol (vomitoxin).

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  • 1Centre for Food and Animal Research, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


Trichothecene mycotoxins are a group of structurally similar fungal metabolites that are capable of producing a wide range of toxic effects. Deoxynivalenol (DON, vomitoxin), a trichothecene, is prevalent worldwide in crops used for food and feed production, including in Canada and the United States. Although DON is one of the least acutely toxic trichothecenes, it should be treated as an important food safety issue because it is a very common contaminant of grain. This review focuses on the ability of DON to induce toxicologic and immunotoxic effects in a variety of cell systems and animal species. At the cellular level, the main toxic effect is inhibition of protein synthesis via binding to the ribosome. In animals, moderate to low ingestion of toxin can cause a number of as yet poorly defined effects associated with reduced performance and immune function. The main overt effect at low dietary concentrations appears to be a reduction in food consumption (anorexia), while higher doses induce vomiting (emesis). DON is known to alter brain neurochemicals. The serotoninergic system appears to play a role in mediation of the feeding behavior and emetic response. Animals fed low to moderate doses are able to recover from initial weight losses, while higher doses induce more long-term changes in feeding behavior. At low dosages of DON, hematological, clinical, and immunological changes are also transitory and decrease as compensatory/adaptation mechanisms are established. Swine are more sensitive to DON than mice, poultry, and ruminants, in part because of differences in metabolism of DON, with males being more sensitive than females. The capacity of DON to alter normal immune function has been of particular interest. There is extensive evidence that DON can be immunosuppressive or immunostimulatory, depending upon the dose and duration of exposure. While immunosuppression can be explained by the inhibition of translation, immunostimulation can be related to interference with normal regulatory mechanisms. In vivo, DON suppresses normal immune response to pathogens and simultaneously induces autoimmune-like effects which are similar to human immunoglobulin A (IgA) nephropathy. Other effects include superinduction of cytokine production by T helper cells (in vitro) and activation of macrophages and T cells to produce a proinflammatory cytokine wave that is analogous to that found in lipopolysaccharide-induced shock (in vivo). To what extent the elevation of cytokines contributes to metabolic effects such as decreased feed intake remains to be established. Although these effects have been largely characterized in the mouse, several investigations with DON suggest that immunotoxic effects are also likely in domestic animals. Further toxicology studies and an assessment of the potential of DON to be an etiologic agent in human disease are warranted.

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