Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is a widely distributed carcinogenic fern, to whose toxins human populations are exposed through multiple routes. Animals are also affected by bracken toxins, leading to serious production losses yearly. Accordingly, several governmental reports regarding the safeguard of public health against bracken carcinogens have been recently issued. This review describes the main bioactive compounds identified in bracken and their biological effects at the molecular, cellular, pathological and populational levels, with particular emphasis on ptaquiloside, the main bracken carcinogen. Recent biopathological studies shedding further light on the genotoxicity immunotoxicity and carcinogenicity of ptaquiloside are discussed. Key steps on the long effort to understand bracken toxicology are also reviewed, along with the latest findings on new bracken toxins and human exposures routes. The presence of ptaquiloside and related terpene glycosides in milk, meat and water are of particular concern from the viewpoints of both human and animal health.
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