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Antimicrobial agents

Chemical compounds biosynthetically or synthetically produced which either destroy or usefully suppress the growth or metabolism of a variety of microscopic or submicroscopic forms of life. On the basis of their primary activity, they are more specifically called antibacterial, antifungal, antiprotozoal, antiparasitic, or antiviral agents. Antibacterials which destroy are bactericides or germicides; those which merely suppress growth are bacteriostatic agents.Fungistat and fungicide

Of the thousands of antimicrobial agents, only a small number are safe chemotherapeutic agents, effective in controlling infectious diseases in plants, animals, and humans. A much larger number are used in almost every phase of human activity: in agriculture, food preservation, and water, skin, and air disinfection. A compilation of some common uses for antimicrobials is shown in the table.

Common antimicrobial agents and their uses



Chemotherapeutics (animals and humans)



Sulfonamides, isoniazid, p-aminosalicylic acid, bacitracin, polymyxin

Antiparasitics (humans)

Emetine, quinine

Antiparasitics (animal)

Hygromycin, phenothiazine, piperazine


Griseofulvin, nystatin

Chemotherapeutics (plants)

Captan (N-trichlorothio-tetrahydrophthalimide), maneb (manganese ethylene bisdithiocarbamate), thiram (tetramethylthiuram disulfide)

Skin disinfectants

Alcohols, iodine, mercurials, silver compounds, quaternary ammonium compounds, neomycin

Water disinfectants

Chlorine, sodium hypochlorite

Air disinfectants

Propylene glycol, lactic acid, glycolic acid, levulinic acid

Gaseous disinfectants

Ethylene oxide, ?-propiolactone, formaldehyde

Clothing disinfectants


Animal-growth stimulants

Penicillin, streptomycin, bacitracin, tetracyclines, hygromycin

Food preservatives

Sodium benzoate, tetracycline

The most important antimicrobial discovery of all time, that of the chemotherapeutic value of penicillin, was made in 1938. In the next 20 years, more than a score of new and useful microbially produced antimicrobials entered into daily use. New synthetic antimicrobials are found today by synthesis of a wide variety of compounds, followed by broad screening against many microorganisms. Biosynthetic antimicrobials, although first found in bacteria, fungi, and plants, are now being discovered primarily in actinomycetes.

Antimicrobial agents contain various functional groups. No particular structural type seems to favor antimicrobial activity. The search for correlation of structure with biological activity goes on, but no rules have yet appeared with which to forecast activity from contemplated structural changes. On the contrary, minor modifications may lead to unexpected loss of activity.

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From McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. The Content is a copyrighted work of McGraw-Hill and McGraw-Hill reserves all rights in and to the Content. The Work is © 2008 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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