How A Doctor Who Dalek Might Help To Exterminate Superbugs


BBC's legendary time travel series Doctor Who has aired for more than half a century, and no villains have been nearly as consistently dastardly as the Daleks. Now, however, there's one very special Dalek that may help ensure the health of the entire planet. It turns out that the Dalek that sits in the foyer of BBC's Broadcasting House in London has some bacteria on its eyestalk that has the potential to work as a life-saving antibiotic. Instead of exterminating humankind, this Dalek may help to exterminate superbugs that threaten the lives of people everywhere.

The miraculous bacteria was discovered by chance when a team of scientists ventured into the BBC to swab surfaces as part of the "Swab and Send" project. The project asks folks in the U.K. to swab for bacteria in their everyday environments and send the bacteria samples to University College London. The goal is to find bacteria that produce antibiotics. In an age in which more and more antibiotics are losing their potency as people develop resistances, new antibiotics could change healthcare all over the world. A recent report estimates that existing antibiotic resistance could result in the deaths of 10 million people per year by 2050 if no new effective antibiotics are discovered. In this case, we really have to hope for the Dalek to do the exterminating. Even the Doctor and his companion couldn't possibly root against it.

The BBC Dalek with the encouraging results has actually produced three different types of bacteria that could be used as antibiotics so far, according to BBC Radio 4. The existence of bacteria on the eyestalk indicates that visitors to the BBC haven't exactly adhered to the "no touching" rule about the Doctor Who prop, but nobody can complain that people have touched the Dalek if the results are antibiotics that could save lives. If this Dalek does end up being the key to saving humanity, we should all pledge now not to compare the Dalek's arm to a toilet plunger ever again.

The discovery of the potential antibiotic bacteria on the Dalek eyestalk was completely by chance, and we certainly can't expect that every Dalek created by the Doctor Who team could have lifesaving properties. Still, if this particular one can provide material to exterminate superbugs, doesn't it stand to reason that we should look into Daleks to exterminate other problems? Personally, I'm willing to risk an invasion of Ohio if scientists discover a way to program them to exterminate actual bugs. House centipedes may not be quite as serious a threat to international health as superbugs, but they can be pretty damn hard for non-cyborgs to kill. That's an unholy alliance I'd be willing to make.

In all seriousness, only time will tell if the BBC Dalek does indeed have what it takes to save lives with its bacteria as an antibiotic. We can certainly hope that the discovery of bacteria with such life-saving potential on a Doctor Who Dalek will bring the right kind of publicity to the "Swab and Send" project, and we can have fun imagining the crew at University College London swabbing Cybermen to see if they have anything to offer to humanity as well.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. Resident of One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and Northeast Ohio. Will not time travel, but will sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation.