penicillin, any of a group of chemically similar substances obtained from molds of the genus Penicillium that were the first antibiotic agents to be used successfully in the treatment of bacterial infections in humans. The antagonistic effect of penicillin on bacteria was first observed by the Scottish biologist Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. Although he recognized the therapeutic potential of penicillin, it was not until 1941 that a group of biologists working in England, including Oxford's Sir H. W. Florey and E. B. Chain, purified the substance and established its effectiveness against infectious organisms and its lack of toxicity to humans. The first successful treatment of a patient with penicillin occurred in New Haven, Conn., in 1942. Despite the development of hundreds of different antibiotics in recent decades, penicillin remains important in antibiotic therapy.

Small amounts of the antibiotic were first obtained from strains of the mold species P. notatum grown in fermentation bottles. During World War II need for the drug spurred development of better production methods; in the current method highly productive strains of Penicillium are grown in a cornsteep liquor medium in fermentation vats. The main form of penicillin produced by this method is benzylpenicillin, which, like all penicillins, is a derivative of 6-aminopenicillanic acid. Phenoxymethyl penicillin, which can be given orally because it is resistant to degradation by stomach acid, is produced by the species P. chrysogenum.


Penicillin is effective against many gram-positive bacteria (see Gram's stain), including those that cause syphilis, meningococcal meningitis, gas gangrene, pneumococcal pneumonia, and some staphylococcal and streptococcal infections. Most gram-negative bacteria are resistant to the antibiotic, but some, such as the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, are susceptible, and others are responsive to high penicillin concentrations or to only certain classes of penicillins. Tuberculosis bacteria, protozoans, viruses, and most fungi are not affected by penicillin. The class of penicillins that includes ampicillin and amoxicillin with clavulanate (Augmentin) is active against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria such as Haemophilus influenzae and Escherichia coli. All penicillins act by interfering with synthesis of the cell wall.

Drug Resistance and Sensitivity

Use of penicillin is limited by the fact that, although it causes fewer side effects than many other antibiotics, it causes allergic sensitivity in many individuals, including skin reactions and allergic shock. In addition, many microorganisms have developed resistance to the penicillins, and serious hospital epidemics involving infants and surgical patients have been caused by penicillin-resistant staphylococci (see drug resistance). Some organisms are resistant because they produce an enzyme, penicillinase, that destroys the antibiotic. Synthetically produced penicillins such as methicillin and oxacillin have been developed that are not degraded by the penicillinase enzyme, but these new penicillins have no effect on bacteria that have developed resistance by other means, e.g., by altered cell wall structure. Other antibiotics, such as erythromycin, have become important in treating infections by microorganisms resistant to penicillin.

See E. Lax, The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle (2004).

Antibiotic derived from the Penicillium mold. It was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming; by 1940, Howard Walter Florey, Ernst Boris Chain, and others had produced commercial quantities that proved vital to the treatment of war casualties, making penicillin the first successful antibiotic for human bacterial infections. Many natural and semisynthetic (ampicillin, amoxicillin) variants have since been produced. All work by inhibiting the enzymes responsible for bacterial cell wall synthesis (and therefore do not work against microorganisms without cell walls or with certain variant cell walls; e.g., the tuberculosis bacillus). Among the bacteria susceptible to penicillin are those causing strep throat, spinal meningitis, gas gangrene, and syphilis. Overuse has led to drug resistance in some strains. Penicillin's chief side effect is allergy, which can be life-threatening.

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Penicillin (sometimes abbreviated PCN or pen) is a group of Beta-lactam antibiotics used in the treatment of bacterial infections caused by susceptible, usually Gram-positive, organisms. “Penicillin” is also the informal name of a specific member of the penicillin group Penam Skeleton, which has the molecular formula R-C9H11N2O4S, where R is a variable side chain.


The discovery of penicillin has been attributed to Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928 and the development of penicillin for use as a medicine is attributed to the Australian Nobel Laureate Howard Walter Florey.

However, several others had noted earlier the bacteriostatic effects of Penicillium: The first published reference appears to have been in 1875, when it was reported to the Royal Society in London by John Tyndall. Ernest Duchesne documented it in his 1897 paper; however it was not accepted by the Institut Pasteur because of his young age. In March 2000, doctors at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in San Jose (Costa Rica) published manuscripts belonging to the Costa Rican scientist and medical doctor Clodomiro (Clorito) Picado Twight (1887–1944). The manuscripts explained Picado's experiences between 1915 and 1927 about the inhibitory actions of the fungi of genera Penic. Clorito Picado had reported his discovery to the Paris Academy of Sciences, yet did not patent it, even though his investigation had started years before Fleming's.

Fleming recounted later that the date of his breakthrough was on the morning of Friday, September 28, 1928. At his laboratory in the basement of St. Mary's Hospital in London (now part of Imperial College), Fleming noticed a halo of inhibition of bacterial growth around a contaminant blue-green mold Staphylococcus plate culture. Fleming concluded that the mold was releasing a substance that was inhibiting bacterial growth and lysing the bacteria. He grew a pure culture of the mold and discovered that it was a Penicillium mold, now known to be Penicillium notatum. Charles Thom, an American specialist working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the acknowledged expert, and Fleming referred the matter to him. Fleming coined the term "penicillin" to describe the filtrate of a broth culture of the Penicillium mold. Even in these early stages, penicillin was found to be most effective against Gram-positive bacteria, and ineffective against Gram-negative organisms and fungi. He expressed initial optimism that penicillin would be a useful disinfectant, being highly potent with minimal toxicity compared to antiseptics of the day, but, in particular, noted its laboratory value in the isolation of "Bacillus influenzae" (now Haemophilus influenzae). After further experiments, Fleming was convinced that penicillin could not last long enough in the human body to kill pathogenic bacteria, and stopped studying penicillin after 1931, but restarted some clinical trials in 1934 and continued to try to get someone to purify it until 1940.

In 1930 Cecil George Paine, a pathologist at the Royal Infirmary in Sheffield, attempted to treat sycosis barbae – eruptions in beard follicles – but was unsuccessful, probably because the drug did not get deep enough. Moving on to ophthalmia neonatorum – a gonococcal infection in babies – he achieved the first cure on 25 November 1930. He cured four patients (one adult, three babies) of eye infections, although a fifth patient was not so lucky.

In 1939, Australian scientist Howard Florey (later Baron Florey) and a team of researchers (Ernst Boris Chain, A. D. Gardner, Norman Heatley, M. Jennings, J. Orr-Ewing and G. Sanders) at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford made significant progress in showing the in vivo bactericidal action of penicillin. Their attempts to treat humans failed due to insufficient volumes of penicillin (the first patient treated was Reserve Constable Albert Alexander), but they proved it harmless and effective on mice.

Some of the pioneering trials of penicillin took place at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. On March 141942, John Bumstead and Orvan Hess became the first in the world to successfully treat a patient using penicillin.

The challenge of mass-producing the drug had been daunting. On March 14, 1942 the first patient was treated for streptococcal septicemia with U.S.-made penicillin produced by Merck & Co. Half of the total supply produced at the time was used on that one patient. By June 1942 there was just enough U.S. penicillin available to treat ten patients. A moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria, Illinois market in 1943 was found to contain the best and highest-quality penicillin after a world-wide search. The discovery of the cantaloupe, and the results of fermentation research on corn-steep liquid at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory at Peoria, Illinois, allowed the USA to produce 2.3 million doses in time for the invasion of Normandy in the spring of 1944.

During World War II, penicillin made a major difference in the number of deaths and amputations caused by infected wounds among Allied forces, saving an estimated 12%–15% of lives. Availability was severely limited, however, by the difficulty of manufacturing large quantities of penicillin and by the rapid renal clearance of the drug, necessitating frequent dosing. Penicillin are actively secreted, and about 80% of a penicillin dose is cleared within three to four hours of administration. During those times, it became common procedure to collect the urine from patients being treated so that the penicillin could be isolated and reused.

This was not a satisfactory solution, however; so researchers looked for a way to slow penicillin secretion. They hoped to find a molecule that could compete with penicillin for the organic acid transporter responsible for secretion such that the transporter would preferentially secrete the competitive inhibitor. The uricosuric agent probenecid proved to be suitable. When probenecid and penicillin are concomitantly administered, probenecid competitively inhibits the secretion of penicillin, increasing penicillin's concentration and prolonging its activity. The advent of mass-production techniques and semi-synthetic penicillins solved supply issues, and this use of probenecid declined. Probenecid is still useful, however, for certain infections requiring particularly high concentrations of penicillins.

The chemical structure of penicillin was determined by Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in the early 1940s. A team of Oxford research scientists led by Australian Howard Florey, Baron Florey and including Ernst Boris Chain and Norman Heatley discovered a method of mass-producing the drug. Chemist John Sheehan at MIT completed the first total synthesis of penicillin and some of its analogs in the early 1950s, but his methods were not efficient for mass production. Florey and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel prize in medicine with Fleming for this work, and, after WWII, Australia was the first country to make the drug available for civilian use. Penicillin has since become the most widely used antibiotic to date, and is still used for many Gram-positive bacterial infections.

Developments from penicillin

The narrow range of treatable diseases or spectrum of activity of the penicillins, along with the poor activity of the orally active phenoxymethylpenicillin, led to the search for derivatives of penicillin that could treat a wider range of infections.

The first major development was ampicillin, which offered a broader spectrum of activity than either of the original penicillins. Further development yielded beta-lactamase-resistant penicillins including flucloxacillin, dicloxacillin and methicillin. These were significant for their activity against beta-lactamase-producing bacteria species, but are ineffective against the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus strains that subsequently emerged.

The line of true penicillins was the antipseudomonal penicillins, such as ticarcillin and piperacillin, useful for their activity against Gram-negative bacteria. However, the usefulness of the beta-lactam ring was such that related antibiotics, including the mecillinams, the carbapenems and, most important, the cephalosporins, have this at the center of their structures. Ondred Abumbumer also made further discoveries towards penicillin.

Mechanism of action

β-lactam antibiotics work by inhibiting the formation of peptidoglycan cross-links in the bacterial cell wall. The β-lactam moiety (functional group) of penicillin binds to the enzyme (DD-transpeptidase) that links the peptidoglycan molecules in bacteria, which weakens the cell wall of the bacterium (in other words, the antibiotic causes cytolysis or death due to osmotic pressure). In addition, the build-up of peptidoglycan precursors triggers the activation of bacterial cell wall hydrolases and autolysins, which further digest the bacteria's existing peptidoglycan.

Gram-positive bacteria are called protoplasts when they lose their cell wall. Gram-negative bacteria do not lose their cell wall completely and are called spheroplasts after treatment with penicillin.

Penicillin shows a synergistic effect with aminoglycosides, since the inhibition of peptidoglycan synthesis allows aminoglycosides to penetrate the bacterial cell wall more easily, allowing its disruption of bacterial protein synthesis within the cell. This results in a lowered MBC for susceptible organisms.

Variants in clinical use

Benzylpenicillin/penicillin G

The term “penicillin” is often used in the generic sense to refer to one of the narrow-spectrum penicillins, in particular, benzylpenicillin.

Benzylpenicillin, commonly known as penicillin G, is the gold standard penicillin. Penicillin G is typically given by a parenteral route of administration (not orally) because it is unstable in the hydrochloric acid of the stomach. Because the drug is given parenterally, higher tissue concentrations of penicillin G can be achieved than is possible with phenoxymethylpenicillin. These higher concentrations translate to increased antibacterial activity.

Specific indications for benzylpenicillin include:

Phenoxymethylpenicillin/penicillin V

Phenoxymethylpenicillin, commonly known as penicillin V, is the orally active form of penicillin. It is less active than benzylpenicillin, however, and is appropriate only in conditions where high tissue concentrations are not required.

Specific indications for phenoxymethylpenicillin include:

Penicillin V is the first choice in the treatment of odontogenic infections.


Procaine benzylpenicillin (rINN), also known as procaine penicillin, is a combination of benzylpenicillin with the local anaesthetic agent procaine. Following deep intramuscular injection, it is slowly absorbed into the circulation and hydrolysed to benzylpenicillin — thus it is used where prolonged low concentrations of benzylpenicillin are required.

This combination is aimed at reducing the pain and discomfort associated with a large intramuscular injection of penicillin. It is widely used in veterinary settings.

Specific indications for procaine penicillin include:

  • Syphilis
    • It should be noted that in the United States, Bicillin C-R (a injectable suspension which 1.2 million units of benzathine penicillin & 1.2 million units of procaine penicillin per 4 mL) is not recommended for treating syphilis, since it contains only half the recommended dose of benzathine penicillin. Medication errors have been made due to the confusion between Bicillin L-A & Bicillin C-R. As a result, changes in product packaging have been made; specifically, the statement "Not for the Treatment of Syphilis" has been added in red text to both the Bicillin CR and Billin CR 900/300 syringe labels.
  • Respiratory tract infections where compliance with oral treatment is unlikely
  • Cellulitis, erysipelas

Procaine penicillin is also used as an adjunct in the treatment of anthrax.


Benzathine benzylpenicillin (rINN), also known as benzathine penicillin, is slowly absorbed into the circulation, after intramuscular injection, and hydrolysed to benzylpenicillin in vivo. It is the drug-of-choice when prolonged low concentrations of benzylpenicillin are required and appropriate, allowing prolonged antibiotic action over 2–4 weeks after a single IM dose. It is marketed by Wyeth under the trade name Bicillin L-A. Specific indications for benzathine penicillin include:

Adverse effects

Common adverse drug reactions (≥1% of patients) associated with use of the penicillins include diarrhea, hypersensitivity, nausea, rash, neurotoxicity urticaria, and/or superinfection (including candidiasis). Infrequent adverse effects (0.1–1% of patients) include fever, vomiting, erythema, dermatitis, angioedema, seizures (especially in epileptics), and/or pseudomembranous colitis.

Pain and inflammation at the injection site is also common for parenterally administered benzathine benzylpenicillin, benzylpenicillin, and, to a lesser extent, procaine benzylpenicillin.

Although penicillin is still the most commonly reported allergy, less than 20% of all patients that believe that they have a penicillin allergy are truly allergic to penicillin; nevertheless, penicillin is still the most common cause of severe allergic drug reactions.

Allergic reactions to any β-lactam antibiotic may occur in up to 10% of patients receiving that agent. Anaphylaxis will occur in approximately 0.01% of patients. It has previously been accepted that there was up to a 10% cross-sensitivity between penicillin-derivatives, cephalosporins, and carbapenems, due to the sharing of the β-lactam ring. However recent assessments have shown no increased risk for cross-allergy for 2nd generation or later cephalosporins. Recent papers have shown that major feature in determining immunological reactions is the similarity of the side chain of first generation cephalosporins to penicillins, rather than the β-lactam structure that they share.


The production of penicillin is an area that requires scientists and engineers to work together to achieve the most efficient way of producing large amounts of penicillin.

Penicillin is a secondary metabolite of fungus Penicillium, which means the fungus will not produce the antibiotics while it is growing, but will produce penicillin when its growth is inhibited by stress. There are also other factors that inhibit penicillin production. One of these factors is the synthesis pathway of penicillin:

α-ketoglutarate + AcCoA → homocitrate → L-α-aminoadipic acid → L-Lysine + β-lactam

It turns out that the by-product L-Lysine will inhibit the production of homocitrate, so the presence of exogenous lysine should be avoided in penicillin production.

The penicillium cells are grown using a technique called fed-batch culture, in which the cells are constantly subject to stress and will produce plenty of penicillin. The carbon sources that are available are also important: glucose inhibits penicillin, whereas lactose does not. The pH level, nitrogen level, Lysine level, Phosphate level, and oxygen availability of the batches must be controlled automatically.

Other area of biotechnology such as directed evolution can also be applied to produce by mutation a much larger number of penicillin strains. These directed-evolution techniques include error-prone PCR, DNA shuffling, ITCHY, and strand over-lap PCR.

Penicillin production emerged as an industry as a direct result of World War II. During the war, there was an abundance of jobs available on the homefront. A War Production Board was made to monitor job distribution and production. Penicillin production was a huge surplus during the war especially with all the available jobs and the industry prospered. In July 1943, the War Production Board had set up a plan to distribute mass stock of penicillin to troops fighting in Europe. At the time of this plan, 425 million units were being produced. As a direct result of the war and the War Production Board, by June 1945 over 646 billion units were being produced.

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