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SciTech Tuesday: Sir Alexander Fleming’s Ominous Prediction

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Part two of a series on the development and mass production of penicillin.

Sir Alexander Fleming receiving the Nobel Prize from King Gustaf V of Sweden. Howard Florey (far left) and Ernst Chain (second from left) shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Fleming.

In 1945, Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain, Sir Howard Florey were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.”  During his Nobel lecture, Alexander Fleming applied natural selection to the simplest living things on earth.  He predicted that penicillin would be used carelessly and over time become less effective at killing bacteria, a phenomenon called antibiotic resistance.   Fleming said, “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

Natural selection, introduced by Charles Darwin in 1859, is the gradual process by which the frequencies of traits in a population change over time.  Darwin, whose 204th birthday is today, proposed that all living things vary, that variations either increase or decrease survival, and that surviving organisms will pass their traits on to offspring.   Some bacteria can produce enzymes which break down antibiotics while others can make proteins that work as pumps to remove antibiotics from the cell.  The misuse of antibiotics mentioned by Alexander Fleming in his 1945 lecture, selects for resistant bacteria to survive, reproduce, and pass on resistance to future generations.

Next week, Florey and Heatley travel across the Atlantic to team up with the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

Post by Annie Tête, STEM Education Coordinator



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