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Med Res Rev. 2009 Nov;29(6):821-42. doi: 10.1002/med.20154.

Antibiotics: natural products essential to human health.

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Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (RISE), Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940, USA.


For more than 50 years, natural products have served us well in combating infectious bacteria and fungi. Microbial and plant secondary metabolites helped to double our life span during the 20th century, reduced pain and suffering, and revolutionized medicine. Most antibiotics are either (i) natural products of microorganisms, (ii) semi-synthetically produced from natural products, or (iii) chemically synthesized based on the structure of the natural products. Production of antibiotics began with penicillin in the late 1940s and proceeded with great success until the 1970-1980s when it became harder and harder to discover new and useful products. Furthermore, resistance development in pathogens became a major problem, which is still with us today. In addition, new pathogens are continually emerging and there are still bacteria that are not eliminated by any antibiotic, e.g., Pseudomonas aeruginosa. In addition to these problems, many of the major pharmaceutical companies have abandoned the antibiotic field, leaving much of the discovery efforts to small companies, new companies, and the biotechnology industries. Despite these problems, development of new antibiotics has continued, albeit at a much lower pace than in the last century. We have seen the (i) appearance of newly discovered antibiotics (e.g., candins), (ii) development of old but unutilized antibiotics (e.g., daptomycin), (iii) production of new semi-synthetic versions of old antibiotics (e.g., glycylcyclines, streptogrammins), as well as the (iv) very useful application of old but underutilized antibiotics (e.g., teicoplanin).

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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