Caister Academic Press

What is an Antibiotic?

Joan Wennstrom Bennett
from: Antibiotics: Current Innovations and Future Trends (Edited by: Sergio Sánchez and Arnold L. Demain). Caister Academic Press, U.K. (2015) Pages: 1-18.


The word 'antibiotic' was originally used in the English language as an adjective. In 1947, Selman A. Waksman published a definition of 'antibiotic' as a noun: "An antibiotic is a chemical substance, produced by micro-organisms, which has the capacity to inhibit the growth of and even to destroy bacteria and other micro-organisms." The clinical efficacy of penicillin and streptomycin brought public attention to this group of life-saving drugs and the word "antibiotic" soon became commonplace in scientific and ordinary language. Waksman stressed that antibiotics were not only antimicrobial in action but also that they were products of microbial metabolism. He excluded compounds made by plants, animals or synthetic chemists. Contemporary usage makes no such distinction. Because most of the early antibiotics were effective only against bacteria, and because responsible health care workers warned patients against the asking for antibiotics to treat viral infections, nowadays 'antibiotic' is often used as a synonym for 'antibacterial' in order to simplify communication. Curiously, Waksman's original definition and most of the energy he subsequently devoted to defending his definition rarely included mention of the single most important property of a good antibiotic, namely that it does not harm the host. Many of the currently published definitions continue in the Waksman tradition and focus on the antimicrobial activity of the compounds, not on their selective action. The published literature can be an important resource in the search for new efficacious compounds with antimicrobial action. Thus, it is more important than ever to have an understanding of how the word 'antibiotic' is used in different contexts so as to guide contemporary information scientists to mine the vast scientific and patent literature read more ...
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