86th Anniversary of Fleming’s Discovery of Penicillin, the first antibiotic

photoPenicillin, the first widely available antibiotic drug, was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming 86 years ago today, on 28 September 1928. Upon its introduction into mainstream medicine in the 1940s, penicillin was hailed as a ‘miracle cure’. To this day, antibiotics are widely used to treat or prevent infections.

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for”

Sir Alexander Fleming

Fleming’s discovery was coincidental: his laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital in London was notoriously messy, and he often left uncovered petri dishes containing bacteria that he no longer needed on his worktop. Upon returning from a holiday in Suffolk, he found that an old dish containing Staphylococcus aureus bacteria had been contaminated by a fungus, Penicillium notatum. Wherever the fungus grew, it was surrounded by bacteria-free zones where Staphylococcus could not grow. Upon further investigation, Fleming found that the ‘mould juice’ he derived from P. notatum effectively killed many kinds of bacteria. We went to the Fleming Museum in London to learn more about his work and how he made his famous discovery; you can listen the podcast we recorded here.

It was not until 1939 that three researchers at Oxford University turned penicillin from mould juice into a life-saving drug. Two years later, a devastating fire in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston became the first opportunity to test penicillin on a large scale: burn injuries and skin grafts are particularly susceptible to infection. Following the successful use of penicillin in the aftermath of the fire, the US government began to fund the mass production of the drug, which saved countless lives during World War II.

Fleming received his Knighthood in 1944 and a year later was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, along with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. In the same year, Sir Alexander became the first President of the Society for General Microbiology. Because the Nobel Prize can only be awarded to three people, Norman Heatley, the third Oxford pathologist instrumental in developing penicillin into a mass-produced, mainstream drug, missed out on the award. In 1990, partly to correct this oversight, he became the first non-medic to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Medicine by Oxford University.

So how does this antibiotic actually work? Penicillin is a member of the β-lactam class of antibiotics and its chemical structure contains a ring of carbon and nitrogen that gives the class its name. Penicillin prevents bacteria from correctly building their cell wall, stopping them from dividing properly.

Antibiotic resistance was a problem even when penicillin was being developed. In fact, the first resistant bacterial strains were discovered before the drug was even available to the public. Alexander Fleming himself warned about the risks of antibiotic resistance in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Numerous derivatives and synthetic versions of penicillin have since been developed, and some of these, such as methicillin and amoxicillin, are widely used today.

Penicillin was the first of a great many antibiotics – over 100 have since been discovered. These drugs have saved innumerable lives, but there is a great need for new ones to be developed if we are to delay the threat of resistance and continue the legacy of Fleming, Florey, Chain and Heatley.

Jon Fuhrmann

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Microbe Talk: September 2014

William DallingerThe Reverend Dr William H Dallinger, is probably not a name you’re familiar with. However, he was an important figure in the history of early microbiology. We sent Ben to the Royal Society, to learn more about Dallinger’s life. Also this month, Ben spoke to Dr Jeanne Salje about her work on Scrub Typhus, a disease that is widespread in Southeast Asia.

Show notes:

If you’re accessing this page on your iPhone and can’t see the podcast player, you can subscribe to Microbe Talk on iTunes. You can also find us on Stitcher.

Benjamin Thompson

Image Credit: Wellcome Images Licensed under CC BY 4.0
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Thinking about science like Louis Pasteur: Lessons from History

ResearchBlogging.org3617385206_80c52b90e2_oScientific discoveries and achievements from centuries past are often portrayed as a set of fully-fledged concepts and perfect results. The exacting trial-and-error processes and frequent setbacks we know from modern-day science are rarely mentioned. Why could this be – was science ‘easier’ in the past?

Dr Keith Turner and Professor Marvin Whiteley of the University of Texas at Austin were intrigued by this phenomenon and looked at 19th century microbiology as a case study. To get a better insight into what really happened in laboratories a century and a half ago, they studied a paper by Louis Pasteur, one of the founding fathers of modern microbiology. Written in 1877, it is entitled Charbon et septicémie (Anthrax and septicaemia, an inflammatory response of the body to severe infections). The manuscript is written in Pasteur’s native French, so the researchers enlisted the help of Dr Turner’s wife, who translated the original text into English. Together, they have published their thoughts on Pasteur’s paper in the Journal of Medical Microbiology. Continue reading

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Unwelcome colonisers: biofilm formation on voice prostheses

ResearchBlogging.orgDiagram_showing_the_position_of_the_stoma_after_a_laryngectomy_CRUK_361.svgA human being’s voice is one of their most distinguishing and individual features. Most of us have experienced the frustration of temporarily losing our voices – but for many survivors of laryngeal cancer (cancer of the voice box), this loss is permanent. A laryngectomy, or full removal of the larynx, is a common last resort to treat this cancer if other options have failed. This operation disconnects the windpipe from the nose and mouth, leaving the patient to breathe through a hole in their neck called a stoma. The side effect of this operation, however, is that patients lose the ability to speak.

The challenge of giving these patients a voice has been partially solved; voice prostheses (VP) have been developed to allow people without larynges to speak again, albeit on a severely limited scale. A VP is a one-way valve that is placed into a puncture between esophagus and windpipe. If the stoma is covered, this valve allows air to escape through the esophagus and the mouth. With considerable training, people can then use this air to produce sounds in a variety of manners. An example of voice prosthesis speech can be heard in this video. Continue reading

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New to Science – September Edition

Sagardotegian_txotxetik_edatenEach month, the Society for General Microbiology publishes the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, which details newly discovered species of bacteria, fungi and protists. Here are a few of the new species that have been discovered, and the places they’ve been found. The full papers are available to journal subscribers, but the abstracts are free to read.

The summer holiday period is slowly drawing to a close, and laboratories, offices and universities around the world are returning to business as usual. Inevitably, though, the talk tends to turn to the exotic – or not-so-exotic – places we visited over the holidays.

While we may wax lyrical about the far-flung and extravagant places, for many researchers these locations are simply their everyday workplace. This month, we are introduced to a good many newly discovered microbes that are the fruit of these researchers’ labour. In the Tengger desert in northeast China, for example, a team of Chinese and American researchers have isolated Actinophytocola gilvus from a sample of soil crust. In the westernmost reaches of the country, Chinese scientists teamed up with Indian colleagues to identify Rhizobium populi from a desert poplar, a type of willow tree. Continue reading

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Under pressure: how do microbes grow in compacted soil?

10461205436_ba74732d94_zThis week, the Society for General Microbiology is hosting its first ever Focused Meeting, a mini-conference specialising on a specific topic within microbiology. This incarnation of the event is themed Emerging Challenges and Opportunities in Soil Microbiology and is taking place at the University of Loughborough. Jon Fuhrmann spoke to Archana Juyal, a PhD student from Abertay University in Dundee and a speaker at the event, about her research.

Archana is interested in how the structure of soil – including factors such as its density, stability and porosity – controls the distribution and functioning of the bacteria that live in it. She notes that microbes play a crucial role in this ecosystem, regulating over 80% of all chemical reactions taking place in soil. These reactions break down complex chemical compounds, producing essential nutrients for plants and soil-dwelling animals.

Even relatively small changes in soil structure can have an important impact on soil microbial communities. For example, bacteria introduced into farmland soil to enhance crop growth may require certain conditions in order to function. This is because soil, far from being a continuous solid, consists of a multitude of tiny particles called aggregates. These aggregates are separated by gaps, known as pores, which allow nutrients, water and other essential chemicals to be distributed within the soil so that they are available for microbes, plants and animals to use. Continue reading

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Nitrososphaera viennensis: a new species, genus, family, order and class of soil-dwelling archaea

Archaea-Post-ImageWhen a new species of microbe is discovered, it often fits into a known genus, forming a new outermost branch in the tree of life. Sometimes, though, organisms are discovered with DNA sufficiently different from all known species that they are placed into a new genus. Additions of new branches to the tree of life become rarer as we move closer to the ‘trunk’, towards ever broader classifications of organisms. Now, a team of Viennese researchers isolated a new species of archaea, named Nitrososphaera viennensis, which is the first known member of not just a new genus, family, or even order – it belongs to a whole new class of archaea. N. viennensis has been officially described in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

Archaea are considered ancient organisms but are still poorly understood life forms. They have characteristics in common with the two domains of life – bacteria and eukaryotes, the group that includes all other life forms. Like bacteria, archaea have no nucleus – but archaeal proteins are often much more similar to those of eukaryotes. After much debate throughout the 20th century as to whether archaea should be classified with bacteria or eukaryotes, they now form their very own domain in the tree of life.

Until recently, it was also thought that most archaea were extremophiles, thriving in environments with extremes of temperature, acidity, heavy metals, salinity, nuclear radiation, or availability of water or nutrients. It was only nine years ago that the first non-extremophilic, aerobic archaeon was cultivated from a marine sample. Similarly, N. viennensis was discovered in soil from the gardens of the Faculty of Ecology at the University of Vienna: a decidedly moderate environment. Continue reading

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