Mental Floss
BIG QUESTIONS

What Are Antibiotics Made Of?

Quora .com
iStock
iStock / iStock
facebooktwitterreddit

What are antibiotics made of?Drew Smith:

Most antibiotics are based on natural products synthesized by bacteria and fungi. Quinolones (like Cipro) and sulfa drugs (like sulfamethoxazole) are the major exceptions to this rule.

Antibiotics belong to a class of natural compounds called

secondary metabolites

Bacteria, plants, and fungi are much better than human chemists at creating complex molecules. These biosyntheses are often accomplished in factories within cells, large complexes of enzymes in which various precursors and intermediates are assembled, modified, and passed on.

Vancomycin, the most commonly prescribed antibiotic in U.S. hospitals, is a good example:

From Bis-chlorination of a hexapeptide-PCP conjugate by the halogenase involved in vancomycin biosynthesis

Although total synthesis of vancomycin has been accomplished in labs, I believe that it is still produced commercially by fermentation of the bacterium Amycolatopsis orientalis from which it was first isolated.

The thing to keep in mind about these secondary metabolites is that anything that is made by an enzyme can also be broken down by an enzyme—often the same one that made it. Small tweaks to these enzymes, or just putting them in a different environment, can cause them to degrade antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is thus an intrinsic and inevitable feature of antibiotic use.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

facebooktwitterreddit