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Why a patchy bit of old mold sold for more than $14,000

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

Few things have changed the face of medicine more than the discovery and development of penicillin. Few people know the story, which is an interesting one, mostly because it was an accident. Here’s the skinny.

Dr. Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist, pharmacologist and botanist, was toiling away in his laboratory before going on holiday in August of 1928, working with various different cultures in Petri dishes. He was already well known for his work with staphylococci, the bacteria which causes staph infections, and was responsible for an enormous number of deaths at the time.

Getting ready to go on vacation, he stacked up the dishes on a bench in the corner of his laboratory, and when he came back in September, he was dismayed to see that there was fungal contamination in one of the dishes, but being a astute scientist he was, he also noted that there was no staphylococci anywhere near this fungal colony. It didn’t take him long to isolate the specific mold, culture it, and demonstrate that it was effective at killing various kinds of bacteria, including those which cause scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis and diphtheria. What he initially called “mould juice” was later renamed penicillin, as it was derived from the mycotoxins (mold toxins) made by Penicillium notatum. 

Enter the world of antibiotics.

Many argue that this accidental happenstance Penicillium and Penicillinmay be the most important discovery of the millenium.  According to Wikipedia, Time magazine named Fleming one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, stating:

It was a discovery that would change the course of history. The active ingredient in that mould, which Fleming named penicillin, turned out to be an infection-fighting agent of enormous potency. When it was finally recognized for what it was, the most efficacious life-saving drug in the world, penicillin would alter forever the treatment of bacterial infections. By the middle of the century, Fleming’s discovery had spawned a huge pharmaceutical industry, churning out synthetic penicillins that would conquer some of mankind’s most ancient scourges, including syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis.

Well, Dr. Fleming is in the news again. One of the Petri dishes containing on of the original cultures of the famed Penicillium strain recently went up for auction and fetched the tidy sum of $14,617.

Not bad for some old mold.

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