How we learned to mass-produce penicillin

Today, we are desperately trying to figure out how to combat and keep up with antibiotic resistance — the frustrating tendency for bacteria to evolve defenses against the drugs we depend on to kill them. Seventy years ago, researchers were faced with a very different problem — how to take penicillin, the antibiotic derived from mold, and turn it into something that could be produced in large quantities.

At The Body Horrors blog, Rebecca Kreston writes about this quest and how a single moldy cantaloupe helped launch the (unfortunately) brief era of antibiotic supremacy.

For something that grows so carelessly and freely on our fruits and breads, mass producing the white mold and its hidden wonder drug penicillin was devilishly difficult. After Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of a bacteria-killing mold contaminating his cultures of Staphylococcus aureus, it languished as a laboratory parlor trick until World War II and the desperate need for treatments to fight bacterial infections became quickly apparent

It would be another fluke – the discovery of a moldy cantaloupe - that would yield a particular strain of mold that could produce prodigious amounts of this “magic bullet” antibiotic. Factories with the expert know-how on man-handling yeast and fungi into yielding their strange fruits - alcohol distilleries and mushroom factories – were then tasked with the production of penicillin

I particularly dig this video she posted with the story, showing a behind-the-scenes look at how large quantities of penicillin were made during World War II.

Read Rebecca Kreston's full piece