In the fall of 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming stumbled upon something we take for granted today: the antibiotic penicillin. His discovery was just the beginning in a long story of agriculture’s role in modern medicine.
“It was 10 years later, just prior to the start of World War II, when a research group at Oxford took up the challenge of isolating penicillin,” explains Steven Peterson, USDA research microbiologist in Peoria, Ill. “Every time Fleming had tried to isolate it, poof, it would disappear.”
The Oxford team could produce small amounts penicillin for patients who had exhausted all other medicines. One patient, a London policeman with a severe infection, was just hours from dying. The penicillin immediately began to heal the infection. “But then the world’s entire supply of penicillin was gone,” Peterson says. “He relapsed and died before he could be cured.”
Researchers needed to find a way to produce more penicillin. The Oxford researchers were sent to the USDA lab in Peoria, Ill., which worked on mold fermentations.
With war on the horizon, pharmaceutical companies and USDA worked on different aspects of the challenge to find a way to mass produce penicillin. The U.S. attorney general gave the firms a waiver to allow “anti-competitive” collaboration.
“One day about a year into the project a local housewife dropped off a moldy cantaloupe to be tested. Her name was never recorded,” Peterson says. A few days later the fungus on the cantaloupe was isolated and reproduced in large 10,000-gal. tanks.
“In three or four months, the cantaloupe strain was producing a thousand times the amount of penicillin they originally worked with,” he adds. “At that point the decision was made to release this to the pharmaceutical companies because in Washington, D.C. they knew D-day was just around the corner—they knew they needed the penicillin now.”
In a few months, industry was able to scale up production for war and civilian use. It is a success story all tied to a moldy cantaloupe and the work of the USDA in Peoria.
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