What Is Involved in the Production of Antibiotics?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
In the United States, the production of antibiotics is regulated by the government.
In the United States, the production of antibiotics is regulated by the government.

The procedures involved in antibiotics manufacturing depend on whether a product is natural, semi-synthetic, or fully synthetic. Natural drugs are made by cultivating microorganisms in controlled conditions and collecting the compounds they express, while semi-synthetic products involve an additional step to modify naturally produced chemicals. Synthetics, like sulfa drugs, are made with a chemical manufacturing process. The production of antibiotics in all cases requires a sterile environment with constant monitoring to check for signs of contamination that might interfere with the safe production of medications.

Antibiotics may be prescribed in both pill and liquid forms.
Antibiotics may be prescribed in both pill and liquid forms.

Natural antibiotics require the preparation of a culture of microorganisms, like fungi, that express antibiotics as a side product. They are grown in large fermentation tanks with food to keep them reproducing. A microbiologist supervises the process, controlling the temperature, humidity, and other conditions to increase the yield. It can take several days to prepare an antibiotic broth that needs to be run through filtration systems to purify and extract the drug. Testing assures personnel that the production of antibiotics was not contaminated, and the medication is sufficiently strong to be sold to the public.

Bacterial cultures may be used to identify the effectiveness of antibiotics for a specific infection.
Bacterial cultures may be used to identify the effectiveness of antibiotics for a specific infection.

Semi-synthetic drugs add a step to to this. Instead of purifying and packaging the natural product, the staff at the manufacturing facility treat it with a chemical process. This step in the production of antibiotics modifies the structure of the drug. It is not fully synthetic, because it’s based on a natural product, but it isn’t the same product as that which might be found in the wild. These drugs may be more virulent against a broader range of organisms, or could have fewer side effects than their natural forms. Ampicillin is an example of a semi-synthetic antibiotic.

Natural antibiotics require the preparation of a culture of microorganisms that express antibiotics as a side product.
Natural antibiotics require the preparation of a culture of microorganisms that express antibiotics as a side product.

Synthetic drugs are made with chemical reactions, starting with a feedstock that is modified in a controlled environment. The production of antibiotics through synthetic processes can be easier to control, because it is not subject to the natural variations of the living organisms used in fermentation tanks. It still requires careful monitoring to check for contamination and produce drugs that are pure and of standard concentration.

Taking certain antibiotics may interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills.
Taking certain antibiotics may interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills.

As with other pharmaceuticals, the production of antibiotics is subject to regulation by the government. Agencies can inspect production facilities and batches of products with the power to recall drugs if there are concerns about safety or efficacy. They may also request logs documenting testing and quality control procedures, to confirm that the company has clear internal standards and follows them at all times.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

everetra

@Charred - I agree. I don’t take herbs of any kind, whether they are antibiotic in nature or not, because those pills are unregulated. It says so on every bottle of herbs, a disclaimer saying that the FDA has not evaluated the product to see if it lives up to its claims (my paraphrase).

The other issue I have with natural antibiotics is the complexity of growing an organism farm just to create the drugs. It seems that creating the chemical drugs would be so much easier, and certainly easier to produce on a mass scale.

Charred

Regardless of what form of antibiotic you use, the inspiration for all of these drugs is nature. Scientists have simply taken what they found in nature, refined it to varying degrees, and then packaged it for sale.

People who take herbal medicine for their antibiotic properties are taking medicine in its unrefined state. However, I think a caveat is in order here.

As the article makes clear the natural form of antibiotics may have side effects which are difficult to control. If you take herbal medicine keep this in mind. You are just taking the medicine in its raw state.

robbie21

@EdRick - It was an accidental discovery, but it took a lot more work to make it work. Alexander Fleming was a brilliant researcher with a messy lab. He was careless with some cultures when he left on a family vacation; when he got back, as you've heard, one culture was contaminated with mold and the bacteria were dead.

He started working on an application, but he never really got anywhere. He wasn't able to produce the mold, or isolate the antibiotic substance it produced, in enough quantity. (It also only worked on gram-positive bacteria.) He worked on it throughout the 1930s and finally gave up. At that point, a couple of British researchers took over and had more success.

I bet a lot of "accidental" discoveries are like that - a sudden breakthrough, but then years or decades of work to make something of it.

EdRick

I'm allergic to sulfa drugs and I never thought to ask what made them different from other antibiotics. Maybe it's the synthetic way they're treated; maybe I'm allergic to something introduced during that process. I've never had a problem with penicillin-based drugs.

Is it true that antibiotics were discovered by accident when a mold growing on a bacterial culture killed all the bacteria? Does anyone know this story?

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    • In the United States, the production of antibiotics is regulated by the government.
      By: Alliance
      In the United States, the production of antibiotics is regulated by the government.
    • Antibiotics may be prescribed in both pill and liquid forms.
      By: ognianmed
      Antibiotics may be prescribed in both pill and liquid forms.
    • Bacterial cultures may be used to identify the effectiveness of antibiotics for a specific infection.
      By: A Oller
      Bacterial cultures may be used to identify the effectiveness of antibiotics for a specific infection.
    • Natural antibiotics require the preparation of a culture of microorganisms that express antibiotics as a side product.
      By: angellodeco
      Natural antibiotics require the preparation of a culture of microorganisms that express antibiotics as a side product.
    • Taking certain antibiotics may interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills.
      By: Kimberly Reinick
      Taking certain antibiotics may interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills.