Ironic isn't it ? Hundreds of millions of people have enjoyed longer lives thanks to the lactose intolerance of some slimy little mold.
That mold makes penicillin : in the beginning, very little, only converting about one millionth of the war-rationed sugar that was so lovingly fed into penicillin.
Turns out that was the biggest part of our problem : we were feeding it far too well, on easy-to-digest sugars and so it failed to produce any penicillin.
But as soon as we learned to starve it slowly, by giving it milk sugar, (lactose) a sugar it didn't exactly live to eat , it started into giving us tons of penicillin.
Lactose stresses the diets of molds something wicked and when they get food-stressed, but not to the point of actual starvation, they play defence .
The penicillin they start making kills and keeps at bay possible bacteria competitors for what little suitable food the mold can lay its threads upon.
But actually starve a mold (and early researchers often accidentally did that), and they started to rapidly self-suicide themselves in despair.
But feed it lousy lactose, just at the right time, just after its had a day or two of easy living on some nice sugar and protein, and it will produce tons of penicillin.
Literally : annual penicillin product induced by human industry is now at least 20,000 metric tonnes a year.
In 1928, it was about one micro-gram. That's about what Fleming saw in the bottom of his petri dish and it was about as much penicillin as was used in its first cure : curing a newborn baby of a lifetime of blindness , in 1930.
A micro gram is 1 millionth of a gram , so there are a billion of these tiny micro grams in a kilogram of penicillin ( ie about 2 pounds of penicillin). And a trillion of them in a metric tonne of penicillin ( ie about 2000 pounds of penicillin if you are old school.)
So we now produce 20,000 thousand trillion times as much penicillin today as we did 85 years ago.
Fleming's particular penicillium mold was actually very good producer - seemingly the best in the world for 15 years, but only produced one micro gram of penicillin in every gram of liquid medium.
That is a million parts junk to one part money ratio, unbelievably dismal in comparison to every other fermentation process in commercial use at the time.
Today, we get 50 milligrams of penicillin per gram of medium : that is 50,000 times better.
That is a 5,000,000 percent improvement in about 50 years.
Think your grandfather's prize milk cow had an outstanding ROP improvement ?
Try this rapid a percentage improvement on for size !
The main reason why we didn't see this sort of improvement for almost 20 years after Fleming found his mold is because we let chemistry guide our thinking ; trying hard to extract ever more of the penicillin we did manage to produce.
But as I used to say to the CUPE picketeers whenever the Gerry Regan government boasted of the size of its final, final, contract offer : " ten percent of nothing is .... still nothing" .
Only by learning to starve penicillium molds, which we had done by late 1944, did we begin to see enough penicillin to make the stuff a paying proposition , not a charity case, for Big Pharma.
But you can read all the best known books on war time penicillin - and I believe I have - and yet never read one word said about starvation of the molds.
The same goes for present day articles from historians and social scientist about wartime penicillin.
Only articles and books from physical scientists actually working in the fermentation industries routinely mention starvation stress in regards to being essential to penicillin production but even they seem to quote articles from the early 1950s as being the first to signal this fact.
But what then to make of little gem from July 26th 1941 from a letter from Norman Heatley to Howard Florey, just three weeks into Florey's effort to get American Big Pharma to make penicillin on at least a pilot plant scale?
Heatley is at a spanking brand new research facility in Peoria, set up by the US Department of Agriculture to find new uses for farm surpluses - particularly surpluses of low value farm wastes.
He is working with Andrew Moyer : one part mold genius to two parts paranoid nutter.
Already, just ten days after looking at penicillin for the first time, Moyer hazards a guess that penicillin production might be dependent on a starvation metabolism.
If Moyer had only been listened to - and there is no sign that any scientist or bureaucrat then - or historian since - ever did, we might have had commercial penicillin flowing by the Fall of 1941 not the Fall of 1944.....
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