Archives of Toxicology

, Volume 84, Issue 9, pp 663–679 | Cite as

Deoxynivalenol: mechanisms of action, human exposure, and toxicological relevance

  • James J. Pestka
Review Article


The trichothecene mycotoxin deoxynivalenol (DON) is produced in wheat, barley and corn following infestation by the fungus Fusarium in the field and during storage. Colloquially known as “vomitoxin” because of its emetic effects in pigs, DON has been associated with human gastroenteritis. Since DON is commonly detected in cereal foods, there are significant questions regarding the risks of acute poisoning and chronic effects posed to persons ingesting this trichothecene. A further challenge is how to best manage perceived risks without rendering critical food staples unavailable to an ever-expanding world population. In experimental animal models, acute DON poisoning causes emesis, whereas chronic low-dose exposure elicits anorexia, growth retardation, immunotoxicity as well as impaired reproduction and development resulting from maternal toxicity. Pathophysiologic effects associated with DON include altered neuroendocrine signaling, proinflammatory gene induction, disruption of the growth hormone axis, and altered gut integrity. At the cellular level, DON induces ribotoxic stress thereby disrupting macromolecule synthesis, cell signaling, differentiation, proliferation, and death. There is a need to better understand the mechanistic linkages between these early dose-dependent molecular effects and relevant pathological sequelae. Epidemiological studies are needed to determine if relationships exist between consumption of high DON levels and incidence of both gastroenteritis and potential chronic diseases. From the perspective of human health translation, a particularly exciting development is the availability of biomarkers of exposure (e.g. DON glucuronide) and effect (e.g. IGF1) now make it possible to study the relationship between DON consumption and growth retardation in susceptible human populations such as children and vegetarians. Ultimately, a fusion of basic and translational research is needed to validate or refine existing risk assessments and regulatory standards for this common mycotoxin.


Mycotoxin Trichothecene Gastroenteritis Fungus Fusarium 



This work was supported in part by the USDA, under a cooperative project with U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative (JJP). Any findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USDA. This project was also funded in part by Public Health Service Grant ES 3358 (JJP) from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.


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© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Microbiology and Molecular GeneticsMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.Department of Food Science and Human NutritionMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  3. 3.Center for Integrative ToxicologyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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