The beginning of the modern era of antibiotics can be traced back to Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928. After returning from a family vacation, Fleming noticed that a plate of Staphylococcus bacteria had been contaminated with a colony of mold. The clear ring that surrounded the mold piqued Fleming’s interest, and he concluded that the mold had secreted a substance capable of killing the bacteria. Though Fleming proposed the use of this substance, which he dubbed penicillin after the Penicillium mold that had contaminated his culture, the implications of his discovery went largely unnoticed for over a decade.
Penicillin’s full potential finally became realized in 1939, when a team of Oxford researchers developed new methods of purifying the drug and proved that the compound was capable of combatting infectious bacteria in both mice and human patients. But although penicillin seemed to be a magic bullet in the fight against bacterial infections, the extraction processes from cultures of the mold were woefully insufficient. Penicillin was often harvested from the urine of patients being treated with the drug, before being isolated and given to the next patient. As the Allied troops poured into Europe, large-scale production method for penicillin became the next challenge.
In an effort to increase production, the Oxford researchers began working with laboratories in the US in the hopes of developing a large-scale method of extracting penicillin. Breakthroughs made at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Peoria, Illinois—first through the development of an improved fermentation method using vats of corn-steep liquor, and then through the discovery of a new strain of penicillium on a moldy cantaloupe—enabled the production of billions of units of penicillin throughout the duration of the war.
Though Fleming’s penicillin was the first antibiotic to be discovered, its success led to the research and eventual development of similarly structured antibiotics like ampicillin, carbapenams, and cephalosporins, many of which are still used today. But though the modern era of antibiotics has helped save countless lives from bacterial infection, the medical field faces a daunting foe in the form of multidrug resistant bacteria. Though we take for granted the fact that many bacterial infections can be suitably treated with existing antibiotics, strains like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are immune to several common antibiotics. At some point, we will be forced to ask ourselves—what will we do when we face a bacterial infection for which there is no treatment?
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