By Patti Wilson Contributing Editor

As you head out to the chute to treat a sick steer, have you ever pondered where that bottle of antibiotic you are carrying came from? I don’t mean from your local veterinarian or feed store. Where was it made and how do they do it? Seems all we hear about antibiotics lately is bad news. I thought it was time to be positive about our life-saving drugs.

Alexander Fleming

The Wonder of Dirt

Antibiotics are initially made from dirt, or more politely, soil. Soils contain thousands of species of fungus, bacteria and molds, some of which are powerful antibiotics and most of which are still waiting to be discovered. Penicillin, of course, was the first antibiotic. It was suspected that that the penicillium fungus had healing powers as early as 1640. The 1880s produced a flock of scientists, including Louis Pasteur, who swore by their curative theories using bacteria, molds and fungus.

It was 1928 before Scottish Physician Alexander Fleming, working in London, accidentally stumbled upon, identified and named penicillin. The early research he provided was an important steppingstone in the development of antibiotics, but the story only begins there.

A fungus in a petri dish is only just that. Fleming’s discovery eventually had to be cultured, harvested and tested on lab mice. It underwent testing on sad, sick people who, in a moment of desperation became voluntary guinea pigs. Some folks had children dying from infections who begged scientists to please save their offspring by using this experimental drug. Pleas for help grew as the secret about a miracle cure leaked out of the world’s labs. Demand for the new fungus-based drug, well, mushroomed. (You had to know that one was coming.)

Fleming’s mission had been taken up by British doctors Howard Flory and Ernst Chain in about 1938. These two conducted years of tests, identifying diseases that would succumb to penicillin treatment. A particularly difficult aspect of development was figuring out how to manufacture the end product in massive, industrial amounts to serve the incredible market springing up for the new drug.

By now, penicillin research had spread globally, and World War II was approaching. Penicillin was first made in large enough amounts to initiate tests on lab mice. Later, results in human testing were so positive that massive amounts of the drug were manufactured for use by the military in World War II. Military requirements used 85 percent of production in 1944. By 1945, enough was made to become commercially available to the public.

Think about that, folks. That was not very long ago.

Some manipulation was played upon the fungus to make it increase yield and speed. Mutant strains, irradiation, x-rays and ultraviolet light have all been used to encourage output from the penicillium microbe. Corn steep liquor has been described as an almost indispensable part of the industrial production of penicillin, encouraging five times the normal output of drug. It is used in a process called deep tank fermentation.

The original miracle drug, penicillin has been used to defeat, for example, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Clostridium perfringens and Chlamydia bacteria, scarlet fever, leptospirosis and gas gangrene.

It has been used widely in livestock post-World War II and is still effective today on many thousands of farms and ranches.

Fleming, Flory and Chain jointly received the Nobel Prize in 1945.

The Next Leap

A U.S. Farm Report by Tyne Morgan on AGWEB related the 75th anniversary of a discovery made on a research farm at the University of Missouri-Columbia Sanborn Field. The soil there became the foundation of medicine still in use today in humans and livestock.

Researchers in the area were “looking for that golden antibiotic, that one that would really be effective and be taken orally, not by injection.” It had to also be non-toxic.

Benjamin Duggar, Ph.D., former faculty member, obtained a soil sample for his employer, Lederle Laboratories. He began to culture for organisms. “The soil contained a golden mold that suppressed the growth of many microorganisms, including Streptococci, a bacteria that causes various types of infections. From the samples, researchers eventually created aureomycin, which proved to be an antibiotic effective against 90 percent of bacteria-caused infections in humans.”

Aureolus is the Latin word meaning “golden color.” The drug has been effectively used for decades and is widely used in livestock production. Reportedly, it’s still the best treatment for Rocky Mountain spotted fever in humans.

Aureomycin is in the tetracycline class that attacks protein synthesis in bacterial cells. They are effective on rickettsia diseases, which are caused by microbes that are able to infect and inhabit deep within tissue and do not become resistant.

The director of Sanborn Field at the University of Missouri says, “We’ve more Aureomycin discoveries out here, we’ve just got to look for them. It may or may not be an antibiotic, but it can be something just as groundbreaking, and that’s what gets me excited.”

Most Recently

The National Institute of Health director’s blog, posted Feb. 20, 2018, by Frances Collins, reported a new class of antibiotics called malacidins. It was living in more than 2,000 soil samples taken throughout the United States. It is effective in killing several kinds of resistant bacteria, most impressive being methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in rats.

Primary research on this new antibiotic is being done at the Rockefeller University in New York. It involved cloned DNA and a “recip” bacterium that is especially good at producing molecules in the lab. Think of a good Angus cow. The antibiotic compounds result in a remarkably effective drug against many stubbornly drug-resistant pathogens. The lab is continuing to “tinker” with the new antibiotic to increase its efficiency and look for new compounds found in nature.

Sean Brady at the Rockefeller Laboratory says as promising as malacidins are, he is “convinced the bacterial world contains a largely untapped reservoir of antibiotics that have yet to be discovered.”

With the sophisticated tools now available, many will soon be found. “It looks as though some of the solutions to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance have been hiding, quite literally, right in our own backyards.”

Because of the high cost of antibiotic development and diminishing amount of return on investment for research and FDA approval, there is a drastic shortage of new discoveries and advancement of new classes of antibiotics. It seems many drug companies are concentrating on other types of pharmaceuticals with greater financial return.

History begins every day. Thankfully, antibiotic development still seems to be in its early stages, meaning there are still a lot of good things left to happen.