The Advent of Penicillin

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The Advent of Penicillin

The advent of penicillin forever changed the world of medicine at its discovery with its ability to treat diseases, deadly at the time, that are now considered commonplace and easily treatable. Penicillin was one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century, as antibiotics are one of the most highly prescribed drugs in the world today. Although its discovery is often described as serendipitous, the process by which it was cultivated was quite meticulous, and continued attention has been paid to penicillin's further development. It is because penicillin and its derivatives have played such a vital role in everyday medicine that it is such an important topic.

Penicillin works by virtue of its beta-lactam ring that specifically binds to microbial enzymes in bacterial cell walls, and keeps the cell membrane structures from linking up. Eventually, if the bacterium keeps dividing, the cell membrane will become increasingly weaker and lyse. The beta-lactam ring is very simple in and of itself, but its ability to remain potent with several different functional groups attached to it makes it spectacular in its applications.


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As was noted earlier, the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming was not as spontaneous as it might originally appear. The antibacterial effects of many molds had been observed numerous times before, and Fleming was doing testing in this area and in the area of lysozymes throughout the 1920s. When he first noticed the antibacterial effects of the penicillium strain of bacteria in 1928, he thought it unremarkable, though further test...

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... a practical form of the drug. This set off a search in medicine for more antibiotics, however, scientists would have to look away from the natural world this time.

Although selective breeding and radiation therapy already give penicillin a storied history in biotechnology, the advent of new genetic engineering techniques that allow for designer drugs to be produced have kept penicillin on the forefront of antibiotic treatment. Often, the mechanism of action is still the same as far as the chemical structure is concerned. However, the means of production are much more efficient in terms of cost and evaluating new strains of bacteria. These two qualities are highly desirable in the field since bacteria have the ability to quickly mutate and render standard antibiotics ineffective.


Biotechnology in Society, Dr. McClure, Jan-May 2000
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