Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spores and Wartime Secrecy : can they actually co-exist ?

You might think I am going to talk about Anthrax spores and asymmetrical terrorist germ warfare.

But you are wrong, wrong, wrong.

I want to talk instead about wartime penicillin, and a part of it that is never ever discussed.

Its inherently asymmetrical medical nature.

Which appropriately enough, then  "drifts over" into its inherently asymmetrical military potential.

So lets start.

And lets start talking about just how the intellectually mis-guided (as well as seriously morally misguided) were the prolonged attempts by the medical establishment in both America and Britain to regard penicillium spores as something  that really could remain Top Secret medical military weapons.

And not just the wartime medical establishment, for recently author Eric Lax and his publishers felt they had a real winner in an exciting clock and dagger title for their book on wartime penicillin : "The Mould in Doctor Florey's Coat".

There was always something faintly Walter Mittyesque about Florey anyway - never more so than in the incident that gave this book its title.

Dunkirk was underway just as Florey at long last accepted that ole Flem's penicillin just might be priceless after all.

But how to save penicillin for the rest of the Allied cause, if Britain fell to the Germans ?

'Let's all rub penicillium spores in the inner seams of our clothing - so even if only one of us gets away, the precious fire of penicillin research can still be re-lit elsewhere'.

But none of these Oxford naifs seemed to have dared ask the boss (Florey) just how they came to possess these incredible spores in the first place.

Henry Dawson's first big scientific effort was in promoting the concept of HGT (Horizontal Gene Transfer) ,the instant transfer of genes between different species and even different families of Life, when its initial discoverer seemed reluctant to even publish his work.

Today it is believed that soil bacteria created the first beta lactam antibiotics about ten million years ago and  - via HGT - gave it to soil molds who modified it slightly and made it penicillin.

So, sometime in 1928, a particularly productive penicillin producer strain of penicillium mold blow into a fancy home in London.

Alexander Fleming's colleague John Freeman was an expert on allergies,  with many rich and powerful patients.

In 1928, Freeman heard a Dutch specialist claim that basement mold spores were the cause of many allergies.

 Freeman got his rich London patients (or more likely their scullery maids) to scrape molds off their basement walls to be tested by his most recent hire, Irish-born mycologist Charles La Touche, towards seeking  ways to gradually desensitize the patients against their particular household mold allergens.

La Touche had no high tech ways to keep spores inside his lab alone - not that I think in the long run a spore or two doesn't get out of the most secure modern facility.

There are many more fungus than us and they have and will be on the Earth a lot longer than us primarily because of their spores.

Their spores are incredibly tiny examples of temporarily suspended Life - Dried-up Life - inside a very hardy and bumpy package.

Tiny is the key here - so tiny they float anywhere and everywhere on the gentlest of breezes - down the hall and around the world.

Being bumpy but tiny and light doesn't hurt either - they can cling to almost any surface - like a human and its luggage bound for Australia, for example.

However if that surface is the tiniest bit damp and the tiniest bit tasty (they seem willing to eat almost anything faintly organic), they spring back into active slimey life.

One of La Touche's spores drifted out of his room and along the stairs to Fleming open Petri dish.

The rest actually wouldn't have been "legend", if Fleming hadn't promptly taken a sub culture of the resulting "spoiled" petri dish, and carefully and correctly preserved it.

Fleming did little to promote the medical use of penicillin in curing disease but he did vigerously promote it as a useful way for busy hospital labs to easily isolate the so called flu bacteria (sic) .

Dozens of labs world wide got a sample from him - they then gave samples of their samples to at least dozens of others.

That is how Florey got his penicillium spores he was so busy stuffing down his coat - from a sub culture Fleming had sent to the previous director of Florey's Dunn Institute.

The Free World beyond Britain had lots of  sub cultures of penicillium spores of the rare - right - type, even without Florey's belated act of charity.

In theory they didn't really need Fleming's spores, only his public article - but in practise, until 1943, they really did need his spores.

Examples of Fleming's spores were actually everywhere - some even better penicillium producers than his original un-mutated version as well.

But they could only be found by teams of researchers seeking hundreds of the right looking blue-green mold on walls and spoiled fruit, and then testing all for their possible anti-bacterial qualities.

Until miracle cures got rumoured about, no one in the world was willing to go to that much effort , just to test a troublesome possible antiseptic.

But by 1943, the miracle cure stories were out amongst the clinical doctors everywhere - and I do really mean everywhere.

Everywhere that Florey went, Egypt, Iran, Russia he had to endure local doctors thrusting excellent producing strains of penicillin molds in his face that they had found locally !

The Axis were just as quick off the mark - Japan got its strain by merely looking about locally.

And the clever Japanese correctly guessed - from one badly reproduced photo in an Egyptian picture magazine - just how best to produce the stuff !

The atomic bomb was effectively secret even if the US had proclaimed it was making one from the rooftops in 1942.

Uranium was everywhere - like penicillium spores - but a bomb from it takes the world's largest, most expensive, building ever built merely to get started on separating pure U-235 from the more abundant U-238.

And without 90% pure U-235,  no working bomb. No nothing.

Tons and tons of scarce money, time and effort kept the A-Bomb an American secret, even from the British and Canadians , let alone the Axis and Neutrals.

But by late 1943, popular magazine articles cheekily showed how one could make penicillin at home, on a kitchen top, for about $5 in equipment and growth mediums.

One didn't even need to go out searching for those semi-rare penicillin-producing strains by then.

In a surprising - even shocking - total volt face, the NRRL's Coghill and Raper had released the top two strains of penicillium.

 That's right, the top two strains that were then producing most of the Allies' military-bound penicillin - to the public American mold type collection in Washington where, as they told the readers of  JAMA worldwide, "anyone" can get some at a "nominal charge".


Didn't they know there was a war on ?

No word if Argentina's Washington DC based scientific attache quickly took a cab over, got some samples and sent them off to his friends in Germany.

Clearly, penicillin was never a viable secret military medical weapon - Florey and Richards were both , to put it kindly, completely deluded to ever think so.

Deluded by utopian visions of near-total purity.

Because unlike the Atomic Bomb and U-235, penicillin's starting material (the spores) were both common worldwide AND its production fully successful even in a highly impure (aka low tech) state.

This was what Fleming had discovered in 1928 but never acted upon - this was the key insight that Henry Dawson brought to the penicillin story, starting on October 16th 1940....

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