Biotechnology and genetics of ergot alkaloids
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Ergot alkaloids, i.e. ergoline-derived toxic metabolites, are produced by a wide range of fungi, predominantly by members of the grass-parasitizing family of the Clavicipitaceae. Naturally occurring alkaloids like the D-lysergic acid amides, produced by the "ergot fungus" Claviceps purpurea, have been used as medicinal agents for a long time. The pharmacological effects of the various ergot alkaloids and their derivatives are due to the structural similarity of the tetracyclic ring system to neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline, dopamine or serotonin. In addition to "classical" indications, e.g. migraine or blood pressure regulation, there is a wide spectrum of potential new applications of this interesting group of compounds. The biotechnology of ergot alkaloids has a long tradition, and efficient parasitic and submerse production processes have been developed; the biochemistry of the pathway and the physiology of production have been worked out in detail. The recent identification of a cluster of genes involved in ergot alkaloid biosynthesis in C. purpurea and the availability of molecular genetic techniques allow the development of strategies for rational drug design of ergoline-related drugs by enzyme engineering and by biocombinatorial approaches.
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