In June 1941, two British scientists, Howard Florey and Norman Heatley, came to the United States to work with scientist at USDA's Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Peoria, Illinois, to develop a procedure to mass-produce the drug penicillin. One of the Peoria scientists, Andrew J. Moyer, grew the Penicillium notatum mold in a nutritious medium that included corn steep water, an inexpensive byproduct of the wet corn milling process. He kept adding nutrients to his medium until he had increased Penicillium yields by more than 10 times. Moyer's results encouraged four U.S. drug companies to try large-scale penicillin production. On the lookout for a more productive strain of Penicillium, a staff member found it on a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria market. This new Penicillium (Penicillium chrysogenum) produced several hundred times more penicillin than Penicillium notatum. Moyer was able to grow Penicillium chrysogenum in quantity by deep vat fermentation in corn steep water and milk sugar. Results were so promising that the U.S. drug industry adopted the medium and the newly found mold and began to increase penicillin production. By the end of 1942, 17 companies were working to increase output still more. Thanks to the combined efforts of the public and private scientists, enough penicillin was available on June 6, 1944, to treat Allied troops wounded on D-day.
Reducing Nitrosamines in Food
It's no exaggeration that ARS scientists at the USDA's Eastern Regional Research Laboratory in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, helped save the bacon industry. In the mid-1960's, it had been reported that sodium nitrite, an inorganic compound used to cure bacon and frankfurters, could, under certain conditions, form cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. After analysis with sensitive instruments, extremely small amounts of one nitrosamine were discovered in hot dogs. Another was found in minute amounts in bacon after frying it at high temperatures. It was the heat that did it; the chemical wasn't present in raw bacon at all. Consumer organizations promptly called for a ban on nitrites in foods and a similar ban on sales of bacon.
In an effort to save the nation's bacon, Eastern lab researchers first searched for substitutes for nitrites, testing some 500 compounds as curing agents. Unfortunately, none retarded the growth of microbes as well as sodium nitrite. But researchers also found that the addition of vitamins C and E reduced the levels of nitrosamines in fried bacon and in nitrite-cured products. The findings led to changes in Federal regulations and in industry processing to minimize consumer exposure to nitrosamines. The proposed ban on bacon was averted.
Insect Repellents & Insect-borne Human Diseases
During World War II, the USDA and military formed a team to develop methods for stopping transmission of insect-borne diseases. It was there that DDT—which had been discovered in Switzerland years before but never used—was demonstrated to kill lice that transmit epidemic typhus and fleas that transmit plague. Using this knowledge, USDA and military entomologists came up with a system for mass delousing that led to saving thousands of U.S. troops from deadly typhus—and ultimately about 25 million people worldwide. In addition, the World Health Organization estimated that widespread use of DDT prevented more than 25 million deaths from malaria following World War II.
The USDA military collaboration also resulted in the use of n-n-diethylnetatoluamide (DEET) as an insect repellent. USDA scientists in Orlando, Florida, and Beltsville, Maryland tried keeping pests away with literally thousands of substances, reporting their findings to chemists. Chemists observed that one particular group of chemicals had repellent action. In time, they came up with 33 new chemicals and sent them to the military for testing. One of the chemicals, DEET, proved superior to all others. Beginning in 1946, the military began using DEET as topical insect repellent. USDA registered DEET for public use and in 1957 it was marketed as 6-12 for civilian use. It is impossible to calculate how much illness, death, and misery has been prevented during the last 50 years by simple application of a bit of DEET. Today, DEET remains the most widely used active ingredient for mosquito and insect repellents.
ARS researchers developed reduced-fat mozzarella cheese--now used in the USDA National School Lunch Program. To date, more than $44 million worth has been purchased for the program. This all-natural cheese contains only 10 percent fat--full-fat mozzarella contains 23 percent fat. ARS's low-fat mozzarella has melting and texture properties similar to commercial full-fat Mozzarella. The cheese is manufactured using ordinary cheesemaking procedures, but at reduced temperatures. This novel treatment produces mozzarella that melts and strings freely when heated in a pizza oven. Reduced-fat mozzarella cheese allows school children to enjoy pizza--their favorite lunch--while reducing their dietary fat intake and lowering their risk of diet-related diseases as adults.