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Daleks may be the answer to Earth’s little antibiotic-resistance problem

Maybe the Whoniverse really does center on this earth. A recent BBC Inside Science episode told a remarkable story: a Dalek standing in the lobby of the BBC broadcasting building in London may hold the secret to the newest weapons in the war against superbugs.

Antibiotic resistance is a major problem, and the UK is no less concerned about it than Americans — perhaps even more so. University College London is conducting a project called “Swab and Send,” where they’ve asked Brits to take swab samples of their everyday surroundings, and then send the swabs in for analysis. The idea is that UCL will culture the samples and then see if any can be used to produce useful antibiotics.

Leading by example, BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science host, Dr. Adam Rutherford, decided to take part in their experiment for the benefit of listeners and the general public. He walked around the broadcasting building, taking samples from likely offenders — things like doorknobs and microphones — but, on a whim, he also swabbed the eyestalk of the building’s resident Dalek, because when you’re looking for things that want to kill humans and you have a Dalek standing right there…

When the cultures came back, Dr. Adam Roberts, founder of the Swab and Send project, reported that “We’ve got at least three different types of bacteria from the Dalek that were able to ‘exterminate’ our Micrococcus indicator strain.” From those bacteria, Roberts and team were able to identify four novel antibiotic compounds.

Further lab testing will reveal whether humans will be able to capitalize on the bugs’ arms race. Since bacteria don’t sit passively while other species move in on their turf, they can be a valuable source of insight on how we humans can strike at bacteria even while they evolve resistance to our current antibiotics. Microbe-on-microbe warfare has already provided us with many useful biocides and antibiotics, from penicillin to the nisin preparation in your dinner. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. Fighting antibiotic resistance is still a hopelessly deadlocked arms race against evolution. The question isn’t whether we’ll “win the war” against microbes. We can’t win against microbes if there are any left. And we need microbes, in places you just would never imagine we need them. We must learn to better target antibiotics, because as the saying goes, if you build a better mousetrap, nature will build a better mouse.

It’s not immediately clear why this particular Dalek is home to such potentially valuable microbes, in any case. In the comfortably air-conditioned and nature-free lobby of the BBC broadcast building, the Dalek probably doesn’t get a lot of environmental exposure, which rules out wind- or water-borne sources. The most likely hypothesis is that visitors are rubbing their grubby little paws all over the statue, in direct violation of the DO NOT TOUCH sign. But the Dalek’s flora could be the source of new antibiotics responsible for saving uncounted lives. The Dalek statue is probably not hosting unique, killer microorganisms sent to exterminate all humans.

Now read: What is the antibiotic apocalypse, and can it be avoided?

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