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Drug discovery

Early antibiotic from a cranberry bog

Losee Ling and colleagues refer to Selman Waksman's “platform of natural product drug discovery” (Nature 517, 455–459; 2015; see also K. Lewis Nature 485, 439–440; 2012), which alludes to Waksman's 1943 discovery from soil of streptomycin, the first drug effective against tuberculosis. In fact, René Dubos, Waksman's former student, had isolated the first antibiotic from soil bacteria more than a decade earlier.

In 1930, Dubos isolated an enzyme from an unnamed bacillus found in an acidic bog in New Jersey in which cranberry plants were growing. This enzyme destroyed the polysaccharide wall of type III Streptococcus pneumoniae, enabling it to both cure and protect animals infected with this streptococcus (C. L. Moberg René Dubos, Friend of the Good Earth; ASM Press, 2005).

Dubos went on to extract the antibiotics tyrothricin and gramicidin from the soil bacterium Bacillus brevis in 1939. These drugs were produced commercially and used clinically in 1940, before penicillin became available.

Waksman used Dubos' soil-enrichment technique to isolate streptomycin. He later acknowledged Dubos' discovery of gramicidin as “the stimulus which flooded with bright light the whole previously unillumined field of the study and application of antibiotics” (S. A. Waksman in Frontiers in Medicine 99–119; Columbia Univ. Press, 1951).

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Correspondence to Carol L. Moberg.

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Moberg, C. Early antibiotic from a cranberry bog. Nature 518, 303 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/518303a

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