Zoom in on microorganisms

Penicillin, a first-generation biotechnology

Penicillium notatumZoomZoom (83KB)
© Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

A medicinal mold
As is often the case in science, chance was at the basis of a revolutionary discovery, e.g., penicillin. Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding its discovery in no way diminish the importance of penicillin in medicine. Several diseases that used to be deadly are nowadays easily treatable infections. However, we must be vigilant, since the microbes responsible for these diseases have not said their last word…

When luck is on our side
We are in England in 1927. Arriving one morning at his laboratory, the microbiologist Alexander Fleming realizes, disheartened, that several of the bacterial colonies he has been studying are dead. Halfheartedly, Fleming decides to examine the dead bacteria before disposing of them. He notices that the bacterial colonies have been contaminated by a fungus called Penicillium. He then concludes that the fungus produces a substance that is toxic to the bacteria. He baptizes this substance "penicillin".

How to produce industriel quantities of penicillin?
Following the discovery of Alexander Fleming, the demand for penicillin grew quickly, notably because of the Second World War where thousands of soldiers died from bacterial infections. Production techniques were then developed to manufacture penicillin on a large scale. These methods are still being perfected. Research on Penicillium has identified the ideal conditions that allow the fungus to produce the largest quantities of penicillin. Today, penicillin is produced in enormous tanks.

But they are tough, these bacteria!
With more and more widespread use of penicillin, certain bacteria developed resistance mechanisms. Some of them are capable today of blocking the action of penicillin as well as that of several other antibiotics. Furthermore, this resistance can be transmitted between bacteria and to future generations! In order to limit the appearance of these resistant bacteria, our use of penicillin as well as that of other antibiotics must be restrained.