Penicillin was the first naturally occurring antibiotic discovered. It is obtained in a number of forms from Penicillium moulds. Penicillin is not a single compound but a group of closely related compounds, all with the same basic ring-like structure (a β-lactam) derived from two amino acids (valine and cysteine) via a tripeptide intermediate. The third amino acid of this tripeptide is replaced by an acyl group (R) and the nature of this acyl group produces specific properties on different types of penicillin.

There are two different types of penicillin.

Biosynthetic penicillin is natural penicillin that is harvested from the mould itself through fermentation.

Semi-synthetic penicillin includes semi synthetic derivatives of penicillin – like Ampicillin, Penicillin V, Carbenicillin, Oxacillin, Methicillin, etc. These compounds consist of the basic Penicillin structure, but have been purposefully modified chemically by removing the acyl group to leave 6-aminopenicillanic acid and then adding acyl groups that produce new properties.

These modern semi-synthetic penicillins have various specific properties such as resistance to stomach acids so that they can be taken orally, a degree of resistance to penicillinase (or β-lactamase) (a penicillin-destroying enzyme produced by some bacteria) and an extended range of activity against some Gram-negative bacteria. Penicillin G is the most widely used form and the same one we get in a hypodermic form.


Penicillin G is not stable in the presence of acid (acid-labile). Since our stomach has a lot of hydrochloric acid in it (pH2.0), if we were to ingest penicillin G, the compound would be destroyed in our stomach before it could be absorbed into the bloodstream, and would therefore not be any good to us as a treatment for infection somewhere in our body. It is for this reason that penicillin G must be taken by intramuscular injection – to get the compound in our bloodstream, which is not acidic at all. Many of the semi-synthetic penicillins can be taken orally.

Penicillium chrysogenum that produce antibiotics, enzymes or other secondary metabolites frequently require precursors like purine/pyrimidine bases or organic acids to produce said metabolites. Primary metabolism is the metabolism of energy production for the cell and for its own biosynthesis. Typically, in aerobic organisms (Penicillium chrysogenum) it involves the conversion of sugars such as glucose to pyruvic acid2 and the production of energy via the TCA cycle.

Secondary metabolism regards the production of metabolites that are not used in energy production for example penicillin from Penicillium chrysogenum. In this case the metabolite is being utilized as a defence mechanism against other microorganisms in the environment. In essence Penicillium chrysogenum can kill off the competition to allow itself to propagate efficiently. It should be noted that these secondary metabolites are only produced in times of stress when resources are low and the organism must produce these compounds to kill off its competitors to allow it to survive.


Lactose: 1%

Calcium Carbonate: 1%

Cornsteep Liquor: 8.5%

Glucose: 1%

Phenyl acetic acid: 0.5g

Sodium hydrogen phosphate: 0.4%

Antifoaming Agent: Vegetable oil


To begin the fermentation process, a number of these spores will be introduced into a small (normally 250-500ml) conical flask where it will be incubated for several days. At this stage, explosive growth is the most desired parameter and as such the medium in the flask will contain high amounts of easily utilisable carbon and nitrogen sources, such as starch and corn-steep liquor. At this stage, the spores will begin to revive and form vegetative cells. Temperature is normally maintained at 23-280C and pH at ~6.5, although there may be some changes made to facilitate optimum growth. The flask will often have baffles in it and be on a shaking apparatus to improve oxygen diffusion in the flask.

Once the overall conditions for growth have been established and there is a viable vegetative culture active inside the flask, it will be transferred to a 1 or 2 litre bench-top reactor. This reactor will be fitted with a number of instruments to allow the culture to be better observed than it was in the shake flask. Typical parameters observed include pH, temperature, and stirrer speed and dissolved oxygen concentration.

This allows tweaking of the process to occur and difficulties to be examined. For example, there may not be enough oxygen getting to the culture and hence it will be oxygen starved.  At this point, the cells should be showing filamentous morphology, as this is preferred for penicillin production. As before, cell growth is priority at this stage. At this stage, growth will continue as before, however, there are often sudden changes or loss in performance.

At this stage the medium being added to the reactor will change. Carbon and nitrogen will be added sparingly alongside precursor molecules for penicillin fed-batch style. Another note is that the presence of penicillin in the reactor is itself inhibitory to the production of penicillin. Therefore, we must have an efficient method for the removal of this product and to maintain constant volume in the reactor.

Other systems, such as cooling water supply, must also be considered. If all goes well we should have penicillin ready for downstream processing. From here it can be refined and packaged for marketing and distribution to a global market.



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