A 2004 research article estimated that more than $8 billion worth of penicillin and its derivatives are sold yearly. At this scale, the batches are so large that small tweaks to the system can produce large cost savings, Bennett says. Current methods of increasing antibiotic production by selecting high-yielding strains are laborious, and sexual reproduction offers an alternative.
In addition, simply inducing sex in P. chrysogenum could boost penicillin production, Kück says. The sexually reproducing P. chrysogenum grow in pellets rather than filaments. This morphological change would give the fungi easier access to nutrients and oxygen when they are in the large industrial fermenter vats used to grow cultures. A pelleted culture also requires less energy to mix than do sticky filaments.
Besides making penicillin manufacturing more efficient, the discovery could lead to new antibiotics altogether. "You could speculate that maybe among all the different crosses there could conceivably be production of novel metabolites that have antibiotic activity," Dyer says. Developments like that would require just the right conditions.