Phytopthora infestans and the U.S. president

In 1844 a terrible disease ravaged Ireland's staple food Ð the potato. There were many suggestions as to the cause of the problem including exhaustion of the soil and malevolent "little people". The Revered Miles Berkeley found the answer in 1845, using a microscope he discerned the long threads we now call the fungus Phytopthora infestans. One million Irish people died and two million emigrated to the new world as a result of famine and disease. Among the emigrants were two families, the Kennedys from Wexford county and the Fitzgeralds from Kerry. Their descendant John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in 1917 and became president of the United States in 1960.

Penicillium notatum and the antibiotic revolution

In 1941 Albert Alexander had an infection at the corner of his mouth caused by the bacteria Staphylococci and Streptococci which had spread to the rest of his face, his eyes and his lungs; he was in a hopeless condition. At the time, the scientists Howard Florey and Earnest Chain had just managed to purify penicillin - the substance produced by the fungus Penicillium notatum that killed bacteria and was discovered by Alexander Fleming. Albert Alexander's doctor Charles Fletcher knew that Florey and Chain were looking to test this drug on a human volunteer and so Albert Alexander was injected with penicillin in February 1941. Within 24 hours his temperature dropped, his appetite returned and his infection began to heal. Unfortunately, Florey and Chain had only succeeded in purifying small amounts of penicillin and they were running out. In desperation, they began to extract penicillin from their patient's urine, but it was not enough. Albert Alexander died on March 15th 1941. Despite the setback, penicillin and other antibiotics have saved millions of lives and the fungus Penicillium notatum launched this antibiotic revolution.