Tuesday, January 12, 2016

wartime penicillin : from modern Chemical AUTARKY to postmodern Biological ANARCHY

Or : from the penicillin visions of Howard Florey to the penicillin visions of Henry Dawson.
Let me try to explain.

Complete replacement of typically feminine-capricious Mother Nature by Male-controlled synthetic autarky, via the methods of Chemistry and hopefully soon by Physics nuclear transformations , was one of the main objectives of High Modernity 1875-1965.

Complete control by binary divisions of reality : fit and unfit, worthy and unworthy of life,order and disorder, normal and deviant, orderly cleanliness and disorderly dirt, pure and impure, et al.

Power over others was centralized as much as possible in a few big centres : big metropolitan centres, big nations, big corporations, big research universities, etc.

Out beyond them lay the feared and fearsome outliers of disorder and disobedience.

Florey, Fleming and Richards, the triad of modernity penicillin, successfully kept the lid on the clinical successes of penicillin for most of the war, so it could be managed to the point of chemical synthesis, in secret, from a few big centres in America and Britain.

Much the same could be said about atomic radiation research by the Manhattan Project and of research into DNA at the Rockefeller Institute.

But Nature bats last and Nature bites back.

To give but one example, bacteria and viruses freely pass  genes around , sending them by chain movement ultimately all around the world --- even its most remotest parts.

Conducting top level chemical and atomic autarky requires big labs and lots of money --- only a few places could raise the money and hence were easily controlled in wartime and peace by control over funding.

But controlling research into naturally-grown penicillin was never going to work - researchers world wide repeatedly scrapped the needed fungus off of dank walls and set to it, in modest labs.

Here's why.

The penicillin genes originated on bits of DNA called plasmids and Dr Dawson was the world's expert on them (or more accurately : the only scientist in the world who was interested in this behavior in 1940.)

The plasmids are freely released into the environment by bacteria and eventually moved the basic genes to make beta lactam medicines like penicillin from the original soil bacteria, found all over the world, to soil fungus, millions of years ago .

Fungus - equally - are famous for putting their genes into tiny indestructible capsules called spores and sending them out all over the world, in the air and on animal and human fibre.

And let us not forget that atomic radiation and other radiation is inherently uncontrollable. First because at the individual atom level any and all atoms will break up and send off radiation - we just can't predict when.

Secondly, because this radiation breaks up all molecules and atoms, there is no container that will contain this ultimate in solvents.

Radiation flying about at will can hit the genes of bacteria or fungus and thus can cause mutations.

Some brusquely dismissed outlier researcher named Demerec  simply went his own way.

He stuck some penicillin fungus under a bog ordinary tanning lamp and the UV rays caused mutations that soon increased the natural output of beta lactam drugs from an individual bacteria or fungus by at least a 1000 fold !

In the process, by 1944-45,  these new fungus strains were producing penicillin far cheaper and far far more accurately and pollution free, than anything chemical synthetic autarky could hope to do.

All this free flowing biological anarchy was soon matched by human unwillingness, from people like Demerec, out there in the outlier parts of the world, to accept any longer the dictates of the Father Knows Best big centres.

We know 1945, today, as the birthdate of post-modernity.

And the triumph of natural penicillin over synthetic penicillin marks the birthsite.....

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