Calamities tend to impress, and the first reference to fungi in the Greek classics is an epigram by Euripides writing about 450 B.C. He was commemorating the death of a woman and her two children, in one day, after eating poisonous fungi. During Roman times, edible fungi were a delicacy, and diverse advice regarding them was offered by several authors such as Horace, Celsus, Dioscorides, Galen, and Pliny. The advice consisted of how to avoid poisonous species, how to render poisonous forms harmless, and how to treat fungus poisoning.

Much of this ancient folklore on precautions to ensure edibility was compiled by the authors of the first printed herbals in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and some has even survived to the present day. It is, however, invariably unreliable because the distribution of poisonous and edible species seems to be random. For example, the esteemed esculents Amanita caesarea ("Caesar's mushroom," a Roman favorite) and Amanita rubescens ("the blusher") are congeneric with Amanita phalloides ("death cap") and several related species (Amanita pantherina, Amanita verna, Amanita virosa) that have been, and still are, responsible for most fatalities from fungus poisoning in north temperate regions. The only reliable guide is correct identification.

The most frequent effect of fungus poisoning is gastroenteric disturbance of greater or lesser severity. Amanita phalloides toxins, symptoms of which occur 4 to 6 hours or more after ingestion, also cause severe damage to the liver and kidneys. Other Amanita toxins have a hemolytic effect, whereas hallucinogenic species cause psychosomatic symptoms. Fever is unusual.

The chemistry of toxic fungi has been under investigation since muscarine was isolated in Germany in

1869. That name came from the "fly agaric" (Amanita muscaria) which has been equated by R. G. Wasson (1971) with the Indian soma. T. Wieland (1986), together with his father, brother, and other collaborators, has made extensive studies of the Amanita toxins (amatoxins, phallotoxins, virotoxins).

As already indicated, mycetism is of worldwide distribution, the species of fungi implicated depending on the locality, but there are variations in its reported incidence. In western Europe, for example, there are more published records of mycetism in France, where edible forms of fungi are widely collected from the wild for sale, than in the United Kingdom, where eating wild forms is still regarded with suspicion. Most poisonous fungi are larger basidiomycetes, but a few ascomycetes with large fruit bodies are poisonous (e.g., Gynmitra esculenta, which is, however, edible if dried or if the cooking water is discarded).

A recent development that has led to increased incidence of fungus poisoning originated from the ethnomycological studies of Wasson (1971). These studies drew attention to the hallucinogenic properties of some larger fungi, particularly species of Psilocybe containing the compound psilocin - which is able to induce psychotropic effects similar to lysergic acid and mescalin. Collection of such forms in the wild for self-administration or illegal sale has resulted in misidentifications or overdoses and the need for medical attention.

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