Analysis of Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids in Queensland Honey: Using Low Temperature Chromatography to Resolve Stereoisomers and Identify Botanical Sources by UHPLC-MS/MS

Toxins (Basel). 2019 Dec 11;11(12):726. doi: 10.3390/toxins11120726.


Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) are a diverse group of plant secondary metabolites with known varied toxicity. Consumption of 1,2-unsaturated PAs has been linked to acute and chronic liver damage, carcinogenicity and death, in livestock and humans, making their presence in food of concern to food regulators in Australia and internationally. In this survey, honey samples sourced from markets and shops in Queensland (Australia), were analysed by high-resolution Orbitrap UHPLC-MS/MS for 30 common PAs. Relationships between the occurrence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids and the botanical origin of the honey are essential as pyrrolizidine alkaloid contamination at up to 3300 ng/g were detected. In this study, the predominant alkaloids detected were isomeric PAs, lycopsamine, indicine and intermedine, exhibiting identical MS/MS spectra, along with lesser amounts of each of their N-oxides. Crucially, chromatographic UHPLC conditions were optimised by operation at low temperature (5 °C) to resolve these key isomeric PAs. Such separation of these isomers by UHPLC, enabled the relative proportions of these PAs present in honey to be compared to alkaloid levels in suspect source plants. Overall plant pyrrolizidine alkaloid profiles were compared to those found in honey samples to help identify the most important plants responsible for honey contamination. The native Australian vines of Parsonsia spp. are proposed as a likely contributor to high levels of lycopsamine in many of the honeys surveyed. Botanical origin information such as this, gained via low temperature chromatographic resolution of isomeric PAs, will be very valuable in identifying region of origin for honey samples.

Keywords: Heliotropium amplexicaule; LC-MS; Parsonsia straminea; honey; indicine; lycopsamine; pyrrolizidine alkaloid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Food Contamination / analysis*
  • Honey / analysis*
  • Plants
  • Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids / analysis*
  • Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids / chemistry
  • Queensland
  • Stereoisomerism
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry
  • Temperature


  • Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids