The War on Superbugs: Antibiotic Development and the Emergence of Drug-Resistant Bacteria

A black and white photo of Alexander Fleming in his laboratory.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic. His paper detailing the discovery was published in 1928 and represents the beginning of modern research into antibiotics. (Image in the Public Domain.)


MIT Course Number


As Taught In

Fall 2015



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Course Description

Course Description

Bacteria and fungi have produced antibiotics, small molecules that can prevent the growth of or kill bacteria by inhibiting essential biological pathways, as a defense mechanism long before humans walked the earth. The discovery of antibiotics and their implementation in the clinic radically changed modern medicine, saving countless lives by treating infections that were once difficult to cure, such as syphilis, strep throat and tuberculosis. During this course, we will cover many aspects of antibiotics including techniques used to discover these inhibitors, their mode of action and use in medicine. For example, we will learn about the techniques used to discover antibiotics, such as penicillin and vancomycin. We will discuss antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the molecular mechanisms underlying resistance, including horizontal gene transfer, point mutations and efflux pumps. Additionally, we will learn about pioneering work to treat infections with engineered antimicrobial peptides and microbiome replacement therapies. The course will focus on the primary research literature, and we will learn practical laboratory techniques, experimental design and how to interpret data and critique the conclusions offered by authors. Students will have the opportunity to visit a local hospital to learn about the process of treatment with antibiotics and what is being done to avoid the continuous emergence of antibiotic resistance.

This course is one of many Advanced Undergraduate Seminars offered by the Biology Department at MIT. These seminars are tailored for students with an interest in using primary research literature to discuss and learn about current biological research in a highly interactive setting. Many instructors of the Advanced Undergraduate Seminars are postdoctoral scientists with a strong interest in teaching.

Related Content

Julie Silverman, and Monika Musial-Siwek. 7.345 The War on Superbugs: Antibiotic Development and the Emergence of Drug-Resistant Bacteria. Fall 2015. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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