Aflatoxins are produced by certain species of Aspergillus fungi, and are important because they are among the most potent liver carcinogens known to man. They can be found as contaminants in improperly stored grains, nuts, and other staple foods, and ingestion of aflatoxin-contaminated foods is a major public health concern in certain parts of the world. However, inhalation of aflatoxins during occupational exposure to dust from contaminated grains has also been linked to lung cancer.
Our recent study, published in Nature's Scientific Reports, shows that aflatoxins can also have more acute effects on airway ciliary motile and sensory function by activation of protein kinase C, which slows ciliary beating and reduces taste-receptor-dependent nitric oxide production. The aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus flavus is the second leading cause of invasive fungal sinusitis worldwide, and aflatoxin secretion may be a way for these fungi to impair innate immunity during infection.