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In common usage, an antibiotic is a drug that kills bacteria. Antibiotics are among other "antimicrobial" drugs, including anti-virals that kill viruses, anti-fungals that kill fungi, as well as other antimicrobials that kill worms or any other intracellular or extracellular parasite, but which is generally relatively harmless to the host and is used to treat infection. The term was originally used to describe only formulations derived from living organisms but is now also used in reference to partially or wholly synthetic antimicrobials such as the sulfonamides.

Unlike previous treatments for infections, which were general poisons such as strychnine, antibiotics are often called "magic bullets": drugs which target disease without greatly harming the host. Antibiotics are not effective in viral, fungal and other nonbacterial infections, and individual antibiotics vary widely in their effectiveness on various types of bacteria. There are specific antibiotics for gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria, as well as wide-spectrum antibiotics. In addition, the effectiveness of individual antibiotics may also vary with the location of the infection in the body and the ability of the antibiotic to reach the site of infection. In general, oral antibiotics are the simplest approach of first resort, with intravenous antibiotics being a much more serious matter, reserved for more difficult cases. Antibiotics for specific locations may be administered topically, through such media as eyedrops or ointments.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Classes
3 Side effects
4 Antibiotic misuse
5 Antibiotic resistance
6 External links


The first antibiotic to be discovered was penicillin. Alexander Fleming had been culturing bacteria for a different experiment on agar plates, one of which was ruined by an accidental fungal contamination. Rather than simply discarding the contaminated plate as had been done so many times previously by so many researchers, Fleming noticed a clear zone surrounding the mold colony in the cloudy bacterial culture that covered the plate. Having previously studied the ability of the enzyme lysozyme to kill bacteria, Fleming was therefore predisposed to make the correct interpretation of what he saw: that the mold was secreting something that stopped bacterial growth; and that, furthermore, if this could be isolated it might have enormous utility to medicine. Although he was unable to purify the compound (the beta-lactam ring in the penicillin molecule was not stable under the purification methods he tried), he reported it in the scientific literature. Since the mold was of the genus Penicillium, he named this compound penicillin.

With the increased need for treating wound infections in World War II, resources were poured into investigating and purifying this compound, and a team led by Howard Florey succeeded in producing usable quantities of the purified active ingredient which was quickly tested on clinical cases. Physicians were stunned and exhilarated at the rapid and reliable cure of conditions which had, until then, been very difficult to treat, terrible to endure, and frequently fatal. Observation of other species of mold and other organisms revealed a hitherto unknown level of chemical warfare being carried out against bacteria. New antibiotics were rapidly discovered and came into widespread use, and a new era of research into the possibility of similarly "magic" chemotherapeutic cures for other diseases eventually led to success in the field of cancer chemotherapy.

Unfortunately, the comparative ease of finding compounds which safely cured bacterial infections proved much harder to duplicate with respect to fungal and viral infections. Antibiotic research led to great strides in our knowledge of basic biochemistry and to the current biological revolution; but in the process it was discovered that the susceptibility of bacteria to many compounds which are safe to humans is based upon significant differences between the cellular and molecular physiology of the bacterial cell and that of the mammalian cell. In contrast, despite the seemingly huge differences between fungi and humans, the basic biochemistries of the fungal cell and the mammalian cell are much more similar; so much so that there are few therapeutic opportunities for compounds to attack a fungal cell which will not harm a human cell. Similarly, we know now that viruses represent an incredibly minimal intracellular parasite, being stripped down to a few genes worth of DNA or RNA and the minimal molecular equipment needed to enter a cell and actually take over the machinery of the cell to produce new viruses. Thus, the great bulk of viral metabolic biochemistry is not merely similar to human biochemistry, it actually is human biochemistry, and the possible targets of antiviral compounds are restricted to the relatively very few components of the actual virus itself.

The discovery of antibiotics, along with anesthesia and the adoption of hygienic practices by physicians (for example, washing hands and using sterilized instruments) revolutionized medicine. It has been said that this is the greatest advance in health since modern sanitation. It is difficult now to imagine an era when a slight scratch always carried the risk of slow, agonizing, and ugly death.

See also Timeline of antibiotics.


There are many way to classify antibiotics.

One such classification is by chemical structure:

Another such classification is by their mechanism of action (that is, the mechanism by which they selectively poison bacterial cells):

Antibiotics can also be classified by the organisms against which they are effective, and by the type of infection in which they are useful, which depends on the sensitivities of the organisms that most commonly cause the infection and the concentration of antibiotic obtainable in the affected tissue.

Side effects

Side effects range from slight headache to a major allergic reaction. One of the more common side effects is diarrhea, which results from the antibiotic disrupting the balance of intestinal flora, the "good bacteria" that dwell inside the human digestive system. Other side effects can result from interaction between the antibiotic and other drugs, such as elevated risk of tendon damage from administration of a quinolone antibiotic with a systemic corticosteroid.

Antibiotic misuse

Common forms of antibiotic misuse include taking an inappropriate antibiotic, in particular the use of antibacterials for viral infections like the common cold, and failure to take the entire prescribed course of the antibiotic, usually because the patient feels better before the infecting organism is completely eradicated. In addition to treatment failure, these practices can result in antibiotic resistance.

Nationwide, a vast quantity of antibiotics is routinely included as low doses in the diet of healthy farm animals, as this practice has been proved to make animals grow faster. Opponents of this practice, however, point out the likelihood that it also leads to antibiotic resistance, frequently in bacteria that are known to also infect humans, although there has been little or no evidence as yet of such transfer of antibiotic resistance actually occurring.

Antibiotic resistance

One side effect of misusing antibiotics is the development of antibiotic resistance by the infecting organisms, similar to the development of pesticide resistance in insects. Evolutionary theory of genetic selection requires that as close as possible to 100% of the infecting organisms be killed off to avoid selection of resistance; if a small subset of the population survives the treatment and is allowed to multiply, the average susceptibility of this new population to the compound will be much less than that of the original population, since they have descended from those few organisms which survived the original treatment. This survival often results from an inheritable resistance to the compound, which was infrequent in the original population but is now much more frequent in the descendants thus selected entirely from those originally infrequent resistant organisms.

Antibiotic resistance has become a serious problem in both the developed and underdeveloped nations. By 1984 half the people with active tuberculosis in the United States had a strain that resisted at least one antibiotic. In certain settings, such as hospitals and some child-care locations, the rate of antibiotic resistance is so high that the normal, low cost antibiotics are virtually useless for treatment of frequently seen infections. This leads to more frequent use of newer and more expensive compounds, which in turn leads inexorably to the rise of resistance to those drugs, and a never-ending ever-spiraling race to discover new and different antibiotics ensues, just to keep us from losing ground in the battle against infection. The fear is that we will eventually fail to keep up in this race, and the time when people did not constantly fear life-threatening bacterial infections will be just a memory of a golden era.

Another example of selection is Staphylococcus aureus, which could be treated successfully with penicillin in the 1940s and 1950s, but at present, nearly all strains are resistant to penicillin, and many are resistent to nafcillin - leaving only a narrow selection of drugs such as vancomycin useful for treatment. The situtation is worsened by the fact that genes coding for antibiotic resistance can be transferred between bacteria, making it possible for bacteria never exposed to an antibiotic to acquire resistance from those which have. The problem of antibiotic resistance is worsened when antibiotics are used to treat disorders in which they have no efficacy, such as the common cold or other viral complaints, and when they are used widely as prophylaxis rather than treatment (as in, for example, animal feeds), because this exposes more bacteria to selection for resistance.

External links