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Infectious Diseases

Longevity Briefs: The Original Mould That Gave The World Penicillin Finally Has Its Genome Sequenced

Posted on 24 September 2020

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of a novel research, medicine, or technology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important:

In 1928, Alexander Fleming made history by discovering the world’s first antibacterial agent penicillin. It was being produced by a common mould that was accidentally growing in his petri dish of Staphylococcus, and successfully killing the bacteria. This common mould was then aptly named Penicillium, and over the next 92 years it has been attributed to have saved over 200 Million lives.

In 1945, Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir Ernst Chain and Lord Florey together won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the antibiotic penicillin, identifying how it cures bacterial diseases, and for being able to mass produce it.

Although today we have many different types and kinds of antibiotics our fascination with the Alexander Fleming’s original mould remains intact. Thankfully, a bit of the original mould was frozen, and now researchers have finally sequenced its genome to reveal its secrets.

What did the researchers do:

Researchers from Imperial College London, University of Oxford, and CABI sequenced the genome of the original Penicillium strain from Alexander Fleming’s lab and compared it to the genomes of two strains of US Penicillium that are used to generate penicillin at an industrial scale.

Key takeaway(s) from this research:

The Penicillium mould naturally produces penicillin to defend itself against bacterial pathogens. Therefore when comparing the original and the US strain the researchers focused on two kind of genes, those that aid in penicillin production, and those that regulate the production of the same enzymes.

Penicillium mold illustration

The researchers found that the original Penicillium had pretty much the same genetic code for the regulatory enzymes, but the US strain had many more copies of them. Having many more copies helps the US strain to produce lots more penicillin.

The researchers also found that the encoded genes for the enzymes were slightly different between the original strain and the US one. The researchers explained that this change is due to Penicillium adapting to its life in the US by evolving to live in its new microbial environment.

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