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Penicillium Strain Named State Microbe of Illinois

Contact: Jan Suszkiw

Penicillium rubens strain NRRL 1951 is better known as the mold behind large-scale production of the powerful antibiotic penicillin. Today, it became the official State Microbe of Illinois in a bill-signing ceremony that included representatives of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) facility where advances in deep-tank fermentation more than 77 years ago helped make the mold's life-saving drug available for use on the frontlines of World War II.

The Penicillium mold strain's designation followed passage of a bill (Illinois HB1879) in the Illinois Generally Assembly and sponsored by Senator David Koehler and House Members Ryan Spain, Jehan Gordon-Booth, Tim Butler and Stephanie A. Kifowit. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker approved the bill today at a signing ceremony held at the University of Illinois – Springfield campus. Physical science technician Gary Kuzniar and chemist Neil Price, who proposed the strain's designation in early 2019, were among ARS attendees.

Starting in the early 1940s, a team of scientists from the University of Oxford in England and the then-named USDA Northern Regional Research Laboratory (NRRL) in Peoria, Illinois, devised methods of growing the mold and producing yields of penicillin that surpassed anything achieved before. Industry's adoption of these methods came just in time to treat Allied soldiers wounded during the invasion of Normandy, France, which began June 6, 1944.

Today's signing of bill HB1879 into law—77 years, two months and 11 days later—designates strain NRRL 1951 as an official state symbol commemorating the mold's importance to humanity and the team's scientific innovations at the laboratory, now known as the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, operated in Peoria by ARS.

ARS scientists Neal Price and Gary Kuzniar.
Neil Price (left) and Gary Kuzniar (right) of the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research hold culture plates of Penicillium rubens NRRL 1951, the official State Microbe of Illinois and source of the life-saving antibiotic penicillin.

Ironically, the mold strain was discovered growing on a cantaloupe at the local market, not far from the laboratory. The scientists' studies showed that when grown in vats of corn-steep liquor and other nutrients, the mold churned out more penicillin than the Penicillium strain originally discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. The unprecedented yield of penicillin and reduced cost of making the antibiotic weren't just crucial to saving the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers; the advance also ushered in new era of pharmaceutical drug production.

That same spirit of scientific innovation continues at the Peoria research center today, including its curation of the ARS Culture Collection, which houses more than 100,000 strains of bacteria and fungi—strain NRRL 1951 among them. ARS's Culture Collection also is the largest, single collection of beneficial microorganisms in the world.

In the 1940s as today, microbes drive much of the center's research—from low-glycemic sugars for consumers, to cleaner-burning biofuels and beyond.

Watch these videos to learn more about the Peoria center's penicillin contributions and ARS Culture Collection.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $17 of economic impact.