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My August contribution to the NWTC newsletter, “What’s Cooking.”

Although brilliant, he was not known as a tidy researcher, and so, when leaving for an August holiday with his family it seemed of no particular significance that he should leave a stack of petri dishes in a dusty corner of his laboratory, an irregular glass pillar of staphylococcus bacterium subject only to the barely perceptible currents of air in a closed room, and neglect. The month of August in London is a warm month; had it been January, perhaps the dust blown through a loose pane would not have been so heavy with fecundity; as it was, the month was August, and the warm particles of dust were heavy with a fecund ripeness of portent as they wafted lazily towards the pile of glass in a forgotten corner.

One month later, he approached the pile of culture plates, much as he would a stack of dirty dishes, with reluctance and a pang of mild regret for having not done them before he left on vacation. As he reached for the plate on the top, most exposed to the air, he noticed three dark purplish spots, scattered amongst the coalescing colonies of staphylococci, around which there was a ring of…nothing. The day was September 3rd, 1928.

Alexander Fleming recognized the antibacterial nature of the purple spots, and published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929, where the discovery languished for the next decade, a few sheets of printed paper buried amongst shelves and shelves of those dusty periodicals found only in a smattering of academic institutions of industrialized countries across the world. By 1939, Sir Alexander abandoned his research of the Penicillium mold after failing to find a chemist skilled enough to refine the active agent.

On a Saturday, May 25th of 1940, another researcher, Dr. Howard Florey, a subscriber to the Journal of Experimental Pathology, tested eight mice that were injected with a lethal dose of streptococci bacteria. The four mice that received the penicillin his team had extracted from the Penicillium mold lived. The four controls that didn’t receive penicillin did not. In 1941, the first human received penicillin after suffering an infection from a rose thorn, and in 1943 Dr. Florey traveled to North Africa to test penicillin on wounded soldiers. His results were hailed as a miracle.

The popular antibiotic, Augmentin, was developed by SmithKline Beecham in the seventies, a US patent filed in 1979, a patent granted in 1984, and the drug first sold in the nineties, nearly twenty years later. Although the FDA was created in 1936, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that its role was expanded in the premarket approval process, driven by the thalidomide tragedy in which thousands of European babies were born with deformed limbs after their mothers ingested the drug for the treatment of nausea.

In 1940, Penicillin went from the lab bench to practical use in the battlefields of Northern Africa three years later. In 1977, Augmentin began the FDA premarket approval process to achieve practical use some twenty years later.

It is now 2011, and modern medicine is running out of antibiotics. There are few new drugs in the pipeline, and invisible bacilli and cocci are multiplying and dividing in a most fecund and Darwinian fashion, developing resistance to the antibiotics developed since the first serendipitous sticking of a penicillium mold spore to one of Dr. Fleming’s culture plates while he was away on vacation.

There are strains of the common skin bacterium, Staph aureus, now resistance to Vancomycin, which had been used to treat the S. aureus that was resistant to Methicillin, which had been used to treat the S. aureus that was resistant to Penicillin. One strain of the innocuous gut organism, E. coli, is resistant to at least 14 antibiotics—the same strain that killed dozens of people in Europe this past spring, and caused the hospitalization of hundreds more. Some of these virulent strains of E. coli release a Shiga toxin that causes bloody diarrhea and kidney failure; and the common antibiotic, Cipro, can make it worse because it triggers a massive release of the toxin as the bacteria dies; fortunately, there is another antibiotic that does not cause a release of the toxin, and that the antibiotic is not resistant to…yet.

So, as we swim through the omnipresent microbial soup in our own Darwinian pursuit of longevity and procreativity, it is important that you minimize your risk by practicing good hygiene; washing your hands, doing your dishes in a dishwasher or fresh hot water with detergent, cleansing your produce, and growing your own if so inclined. You can avoid needless exposure to antibiotics, and if you suffer a bad case of bloody diarrhea while on a trip overseas, don’t take the Cipro you’ve brought with for just such an occasion on the outside chance it might trigger the release of a lethal dose of Shiga toxin.