Rewards of no expectations: Story of Penicillin

By Anjali Gaur

Rewards of no expectations: Story of Penicillin.

We are always told how to live and what path to follow, either by our parents or society. Life seems almost inadequate and bizarre without a plan. We are often loaded with other people’s expectations from us or our own. Everything should then go according to plan because we have a list of hopes to fulfil with a mindset of a strict perception of how our future should work.

But in reality the best things in life are unexpected. If things always unfold how we anticipated, then where is the magic of life?  We live on a blue planet that circles around a ball of fire next to a moon that moves the sea, and you don’t believe in miracles?

We need to every now and then forget our plans and list of probabilities and just live. Live with the most passion and desire of simply being alive, that’s when what we deserve comes to us with ease and no inhibitions. Most of the times a very unexpected turn of events leaves us smiling and when that happens we appreciate of our willingness to just go with the flow without any pre-conceived notions. Likewise when things don’t work in our favour, we shall let it go and roll with it. Life is like a rollercoaster ride; a straight line would mean we are not even alive anymore.

The key is being open-minded and easygoing. One of the best examples of such success lies in the discovery of one of the most prominent aspect of our medical treatments.

It’s 2017 and we take antibiotics for granted. There are several antibiotics used to treat various diseases to prevent infections. Antibiotics were not always available and the first one to be discovered, Penicillin, was discovered only in 1940s by a stroke of luck.

Penicillin is often regarded as a ‘miracle drug’ and that is exactly what it is! Scientific research is composed of a lot of ups and downs and requires plenty of patience. And during one of the trial and error experiments, Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered something wonderful at St. Mary’s Hospital in London.

Before the introduction of Penicillin, there was no effective treatment for infections like rheumatic fever or pneumonia. People back then would die with blood poisoning from a mere cut.

Antibiotics are produced by fungi and bacteria and function by killing or inhibiting competing microbial species. Seems like this phenomenon has been in knowledge for long as ancient Egyptians used to apply poultice of mouldy bread to cure infected wounds. After a holiday back in 1928, Fleming was sorting through petri dishes that contained colonies of Staphylococcus, bacteria that cause boils, sore throats etc. He then observed something quite unusual on one dish which was dotted with colonies expect for one little area where a blob of mould was had grown. The area encircling the mould had secreted something which inhibited bacterial growth. Later that mould was identified as a Penicillium notatum. Fleming realised that this ‘mould juice’ was killing a wide range of bacteria like streptococcus and meningococcus. He then asked his assistants to isolate pure form of penicillin from the ‘mould juice’.

The study around penicillin continued for several years and Howard Florey at Oxford University turned penicillin from a ‘curiosity study’ to a life-saving miracle drug.

This little story of penicillin discovery is very eye opening as we too need to often stop obsessing on what we ‘should obtain’, instead we should be more observant and think out of the box. If Fleming hadn’t felt the need to observe it a fresh eye the petri-dishes while sorting, he would have never noticed something unusual and interesting. This is a blazing indictment that we need to often look at things with a curious eye and fresh perspective without getting too entangled in our bounds of knowledge and rigid beliefs. Because truly the magic lies in the unknown.

Anjali Gaur is a Researcher living in Pavia, Italy. She studied biomedical sciences in Australia and the UK. Her current work involves research on ‘Red Blood Cell Ageing” funded by the European Commission. Prior to this she worked in Hong Kong and Sweden, where she developed ‘Phage Display Antibodies’.

For more articles by Anjali Gaur click here.