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The Rutgers Antibiotics

February 25, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 8

In a letter to the editor, Martin Steinman comments (C&EN, Oct. 29, 2012, page 4) on Jovana J. Grbić’s review of Morton A. Meyers’ “Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry To Be the First in Science” (C&EN, Sept. 17, 2012, page 33) regarding the merits of screening in the isolation of the first streptomycin-producing microbes. Last year was the 60th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1952) to Selman A. Waksman. Steinman’s letter merits comment. Contested is the credit for discovery of the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis—streptomycin—including proof of its clinical efficacy.

Waksman, who received a B.Sc. degree in agriculture from Rutgers in 1915, developed the concept of screening microbes for antibiotics in the late 1930s, focusing on his beloved filamentous bacteria (actinomycetes), which later serendipitously became a pharmaceutical treasure trove. First came actinomycin and streptothricin (H. Boyd Woodruff, Ph.D. thesis, 1942; Proc. Soc. Exp. Biol. Med., DOI: 10.3181/00379727-49-13515), achieved by enriched soil plating. Woodruff and H. Robinson (Ph.D. thesis, 1943) screened the compounds against Mycobacterium tuberculosis, but subsequent animal trials showed both to be toxic. Elizabeth S. Horning (Ph.D. thesis, 1942) suggested looking for microbial antagonists from soils, lake muds, feces, manures, sewage, and composts and “the desirability of a systematic survey.” From her more than 100 fungi and 120 actinomycete isolates came two fungal antibiotics, fumigacin and clavacin.

Albert Schatz then isolated streptomycin producers Streptomyces griseus D1 and 18-16, respectively, from a chicken gullet and soil (Proc. Soc. Exp. Biol. Med., DOI: 10.3181/00379727-55-14461). With Schatz’s petri dish demonstration of inhibition of pathogens, Waksman persuaded George Merck that, in animal and human TB trials, a large fermenter was essential (World War II placed all focus on penicillin).

Grbić’s review of “Prize Fight” notes: “Many of Schatz’s contemporaries thought he simply got lucky on a routine screen, while Waksman contributed the ideas and principles. But Meyers proposes that even if a student or postdoc supplies brilliant original ideas that bring their labs acclaim, they are nonetheless receiving training and an advanced degree for their work—which, he writes, is reward enough.”

Waksman and his team’s Nobel nomination was reviewed from 1947 to 1952. Schatz, who isolated the S. griseus strains; William H. Feldman and H. Corwin Hinshaw, who performed clinical testing; and Waksman, were all meritorious. When convinced of the clinical efficacy of streptomycin, the Karolinska Institute made its award to Waksman in recognition of conceiving and directing the total program in conquest of tuberculosis.

Rutgers celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Selman Waksman Nobel Prize with a symposium, “Antibiotics—Soil’s Microbial Miracle,” on Dec. 12, 2012.

Douglas E. Eveleigh
Max M. Häggblom
New Brunswick, N.J.



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