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Tuesday 23 March 2021


In 1929, Alexander Fleming published his first observations of penicillin under a microscope. A sloppy technician, he’d returned from holiday to find a fluffy, white mass growing on his staphylococcus culture – and decided to observe it. Through the microscope, he saw the penicillin inhibiting the staphylococcus, and postulated medical applications in his paper.
Public Domain via Nadya_il (Pixabay)

The idea of competition between bacteria and fungi was nothing new. Scientists knew all about it. Nor was the theory of medical applications novel. But it wasn’t until Howard Flory and his multidisciplinary team worked out how to grow penicillin mould (trying lots of different “homes” made of biscuit tins in the cellar of the Dunn School of Pathology, Oxford) that the medical applications of penicillin were really born.

Today, this competition plays a role in antimicrobial resistance, a problem found not just in humans, but in the whole environment. Antimicrobial resistance describes the evolution of microbes to better fight and outcompete antimicrobials like penicillin. So as penicillin has become more common, so have microbes that “win” the fight against it.

Indeed, penicillin in the most widely used antibiotic in the world. It enters the environment through our waterways, after being washed through the human body. In fact, we don’t metabolise a great deal of the penicillin. Back when Howard Flory was first developing it, it was considered so precious and lifesaving that patients’ urine was collected, and the penicillin extracted for reuse. A cyclist known as the “P patrol” (P for penicillin!) circulated samples between the Radcliffe Infirmary and Dunn School of Pathology. A single sample of this liquor still exists in the Oxford History of Science Museum.

Scientists are still trying to understand and predict antimicrobial resistance, to best manage and limit it. This includes both the evolutionary mechanisms and the arsenal of tactics bacteria and fungi have for fighting each other!

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