Superbugs: the fight for our lives

Superbugs: the fight for our lives explores the incredible world of bacteria, how they infect us, and how the weapons we use to fight these creatures are becoming less effective.

‘Superbugs’ are bacteria that have become resistant to antibioticsScience Museum

About five thousand people in England die every year from infections that are resistant to antibiotics, and about 700 thousand people worldwide.

By 2050, we expect antibiotic resistant infections to overtake cancer as a cause of death, killing 10 million people every year.

Superbugs looks at how bacteria become resistant, how these incredible creatures are changing the world, and what we can do about it.

Colony of Staphylococcus aureusScience Museum

Our body’s bacterial ecosystem

Our bodies contain more bacteria than human cells. They have been our evolutionary partners since humanity first appeared. Having a healthy ecosystem of bacteria, or microbiome, in our bodies has been linked to effective metabolism and a stronger immune system. We need these bacteria for our own healthy lives. But sometimes these bacteria make their way out of their ecological niches and can cause serious harm.

Colony of E. coli bacteria, From the collection of: Science Museum
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As we pass through the birth canal when we are born, we receive our final gift from our mothers – a colony of E. coli that moves into our intestines, where it lives for the rest of our lives.

Colony of penicilliumScience Museum

Discovering antibiotics

Before the 20th century, many bacterial infections needed long term, often ineffective treatments. In 1928, Alexander Fleming observed a mould, Penicillium, to be killing off bacteria in a dish in his lab at a hospital in London. 

Colonies of Staphylococcus aureusScience Museum

Superbugs evolve antibiotic resistance

Bacteria have been around for about 3.5 billion years. Given enough time, any creature will adapt to its environment or it will die. Just as lions evolved sharp teeth and claws to take down prey, bacteria evolved to become incredible adaptable, dramatically changing themselves quickly to suit their habitat. 

Peptides under the microscopeScience Museum

Tackling antibiotic resistance

As antibiotics become less effective, researchers are turning to other treatment options to kill bacteria. They are looking to bacteria like Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, which hunts and eats other bacteria to kill off infections. Bacteriophages, viruses that inject harmful genetic code into bacteria, are another tool that may become more common in the future to treat infection. Peptides can also be harnessed to destroy potentially harmful bacteria.

Medical UV light, From the collection of: Science Museum
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As bacteria are adapting to resist treatments we have for them, hospitals are having to change.

Copper stethoscope, From the collection of: Science Museum
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By preventing the spread of infections, hospitals are preventing their patients from catching superbugs for which there is no cure, while at the same ensuring that there is no cross infection between patients that will need more antibiotics to treat.

Easy-clean hospital bedside cabinet, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Antibiotic resistance is also affecting how everyday objects are designed. The Design Council in the UK hosted a competition in 2015 to create furniture for hospitals that would prevent cross infection.

Colour-coded farmer’s clothing, From the collection of: Science Museum
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About 44% of all antibiotics are used on animals on farms, so reducing antibiotic use in agriculture is critical when looking to prevent the emergence of new superbugs. Farmers in the UK are dramatically reducing the amount of antibiotics they use through many different tools, including colour coded equipment to keep populations of animals ecologically distinct from one another.

Pig cough monitor, From the collection of: Science Museum
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One tool being used in the Netherlands to reduce antibiotic use in agriculture is this pig cough monitor.

Compassion in World Farming campaign, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Emma Slawinski is a campaigner for Compassion in World Farming, where she advocates legislative change to regulate how much antibiotics are used in agriculture. The more antibiotics are used globally, the more opportunity bacteria have to adapt resistance.

Science Museum conservator preparing antibiotic tabletsScience Museum

Rise of antibiotic resistant infections

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that kills more people globally than any other infectious disease. Treating tuberculosis requires extensive antibiotic use, about 450 doses taken over six months. Tuberculosis is also able to evolve resistance. If TB becomes resistant, Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis needs about 14,000 doses of antibiotics to treat, taken over two years.

Module Innovations infection test kit, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Around 10% of antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily, so having an effective diagnostic tool that is cheap, easy to use, and fast could dramatically reduce the amount of antibiotics we use.

Komodo dragon blood sample, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Nearly all antibiotics come from natural sources, like penicillin from penicillium mould. For decades, researchers examined bacteria, fungi, and other microbes looking for new sources of antibiotics. But a new class of human relevant medication has not been found since 1987. Scientists are now exploring more obscure parts of the world to find the next class.

Credits: Story

Superbugs: The Fight for Our Lives was made possible with the support of our Major Sponsor:

With Associate Sponsor:

Additional support provided by:
United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI)
University of East Anglia

We gratefully acknowledge the kind support of:
Diane Ashiru-Oredope
Berge Azadian
Anna Dumitriu
Matt Hutchings
Amy Jackson
Mandy Nevil
David Payne
Adam Roberts
Laith Yakob
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Embrapa Florestas
The South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.
Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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