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Superbugs at the Science Museum

Superbugs: The Fight for Our Lives

Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives
9 November 2017—Spring 2019
A free exhibition at the Science Museum

Major Sponsor: Pfizer
Associate Sponsor: Shionogi
Supported by UK Research and Innovation and the University of East Anglia

We share our world with bacteria. Trillions live on and inside you, and although many are harmless they can also cause infection and death. Thanks to antibiotics, millions of people each year are cured of previously untreatable bacterial diseases. But bacteria have fought back, evolving into superbugs resistant to even our most powerful antibiotics.

Opening on 9 November 2017, Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives explores humanity’s response to the unprecedented global threat of antibiotic resistance. Today superbugs kill almost 700,000 people a year, and by 2050 this figure could rise to 10 million. Examining antibiotic resistance at the microscopic, human and global scale, this exhibition features remarkable scientific research from across the globe and reveals the personal stories of those waging war on superbugs.

Visitors will see twelve real bacteria colonies in the exhibition, including nine bacteria that the World Health Organisation classifies as a significant threat to human health. Grown by bioartist Anna Dumitriu, these include Staphylococcus aureus, one of the earliest superbugs identified and Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which now has several resistant strains. Penicillium mould, recently grown from original samples used by Alexander Fleming in the discovery of penicillin, will also be on display along with a digital interactive examining the microscopic world of bacteria. 

At the human scale, we delve into the stories of those tackling antibiotic resistance. Geoffrey, a former patient who was in isolation for five months after antibiotics failed to treat a superbug acquired during surgery, shares his story with visitors. Doctors Zoe Williams and Imran Rafi examine why millions of antibiotics are taken unnecessarily, and visitors can investigate how Sarah Whitney prevents bacteria spreading at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. With agriculture responsible for almost half of antibiotic use, the exhibition also explores how a robot ‘chicken’ and listening to pigs coughing can help farmers reduce antibiotic use.  

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer said: ‘Drug resistant infections are one of the biggest public health threats of our time and if we do not act now, the consequences will be catastrophic. Already superbugs are killing at least 5,000 people each year in England—but a key part of tackling this issue is increasing public awareness and working together to find solutions.   

‘This exhibition clearly highlights some of the key issues we are trying to address, and crucially, tells stories about real people. People cannot connect with this threat without seeing how it affects them or those around them. I strongly encourage people to visit and find out more about superbugs and how they can help tackle the issue.’

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum said: ‘As the home of the greatest medical collection in the world, it is fitting that the Science Museum is to open an exhibition on antibiotic resistance – the most pressing medical challenge facing our society. With the resurgence of diseases once thought banished to history books, this exhibition shines a light on the remarkable scientific research that could stop the spread of the superbugs.’ 

Ahead of World Antibiotic Awareness Week, Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives examines the antibiotic resistance crisis on a global scale. A quarter of the world’s population are infected with tuberculosis (TB, in a latent form), with drug-resistant TB becoming an issue for many countries. On display are 14,000 pills, illustrating the two-year treatment needed to combat superbug TB. Visitors can also try to halt the worldwide spread of a superbug (acting as head of a global health organisation) in a new interactive game. 

Thirty years since the last new class of antibiotics were approved for human use, scientists are hunting for new antibiotics in unusual places. Visitors can see Komodo dragon blood and watch as University of Illinois researchers dive into Icelandic fjords, both potential sources of new antibiotics. Brazilian leafcutter ants will also be on show. University of East Anglia scientists believe the superbug-killing antibiotics produced by bacteria which live on the ants may be another source of antibiotics.

Four prototypes made by teams across the globe vying to win the £8 million Longitude Prize will also be on display for the first time. South Africa’s Stellenbosch University is developing a test that can detect when the body’s immune system responds to a bacterial infection, while the UK’s GFC Diagnostics has created a test which turns blue when bacteria with antibiotic resistant genes are identified. 

Erik Nordkamp, Managing Director, Pfizer UK said: ‘We’re proud to support this important exhibition, which helps to raise awareness of the scale of this global health challenge. As the exhibition highlights, no one person or organisation has all the answers, nor is there one solution. Industry, governments, and health providers must work together to create the policies, educational programmes and medical interventions needed to win the fight against the superbugs.’

The exhibition is supported by Pfizer (Major Sponsor) and Shionogi (Associate Sponsor) with additional support from UK Research and Innovation and the University of East Anglia.

Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives is free and open daily from 9 November 2017 until spring 2019, with late opening (18.45 to 22.00) on the last Wednesday of each month for Lates


Notes to Editors

For further information about Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives contact Will Stanley in the Science Museum Press Office on 020 7942 4429 or email
Exhibition images and this press release are available at

Bacteria in the exhibition 

Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives features nine bacteria classified by the World Health Organisation as posing the greatest threat to human health: Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Enterococcus faecalis and Enterobacter cloacae. These bacteria are dead and stored in sealed containers. 

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotics are chemicals made by bacteria and fungi to kill other bacteria. These naturally occurring medicines have been widely used since the 1940s to treat everything from tuberculosis and syphilis to sore throats. As antibiotic use has increased, bacteria have evolved resistance to specific antibiotics rendering them ineffective. This enables infections to persist, resulting in longer illnesses and more deaths. Bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics are known as superbugs. 

Today, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health. 


Alexander Fleming discovered the first widely-used antibiotic, Penicillin, in 1928. Visitors can see penicillium mould recently grown from Fleming’s original samples in Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives. The Science Museum’s own historic penicillium mould, grown by Fleming, can be seen in the Making the Modern World gallery

Penicillin was the first antibiotic to be mass produced, thanks to Nobel prize-winning research by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Oxford University and the efforts of several pharmaceutical companies. By that time, Fleming and others were already predicting the rise of superbugs.  

About the Science Museum

As the home of human ingenuity, the Science Museum’s world-class collection forms an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical achievements from across the globe. Welcoming over three million visitors a year, the Museum aims to make sense of the science that shapes our lives, inspiring visitors with iconic objects, award-winning exhibitions and incredible stories of scientific achievement. More information can be found at

About Pfizer

At Pfizer, we apply science and our global resources to bring therapies to people that extend and significantly improve their lives. We strive to set the standard for quality, safety and value in the discovery, development and manufacturing of health care products. Our global portfolio includes medicines and vaccines, as well as many of the world’s best-known consumer health care products. 

Since the successful mass production of penicillin in the 1950s, Pfizer has been actively engaged in the research and development of innovative medicines, policies and educational programmes to address the evolving needs and challenges in infectious diseases. Today, we provide one of the most comprehensive portfolios of anti-infective medicines in the industry with agents used in the treatment of bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections, including treatment options for serious hospital infections and MRSA. 

About Shionogi

Shionogi & Co., Ltd. is a major research-driven pharmaceutical company dedicated to bringing benefits to patients based on its corporate philosophy of “supplying the best possible medicine to protect the health and well-being of the patients we serve.” Our commitment is to ensure that the real-life challenges patients face every day remain the primary driver of medical research and development. It is our ambition to be a leader in healthcare through the discovery and supply of medicines that offer the greatest possible level of satisfaction to patients, their families and healthcare providers, and that improve quality of life. We believe our patient-first approach lays strong foundations on which to build a centre of excellence in R&D. As a research-led organisation, we are defined by a distinct openness and close partnership approach to creating vaccines and medicines spanning infectious diseases, pain/CNS, women’s health and oncology. For more information please visit and

About the University of East Anglia (UEA)

UEA is a UK Top 15 university. Known for its world-leading research and outstanding student experience, it was awarded Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework and has achieved a Top 5 ranking for overall satisfaction in the National Student Survey every year since the survey began in 2005. UEA is a leading member of Norwich Research Park, one of Europe’s biggest concentrations of researchers in the fields of environment, health and plant science.  

About UK Research and Innovation

UK Research and Innovation is a new organisation that, from 1 April 2018, will bring together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England. The aim is to create a system that maximises the contribution of each Council and creates the best environment for research and innovation to flourish. The vision is to be the best research and innovation organisation in the world. More information can be found at

About Discover South Kensington 

Discover South Kensington brings together the Science Museum and other leading cultural and educational organisations to promote innovation and learning. South Kensington is the home of science, arts and inspiration. Discovery is at the core of what happens here and there is so much to explore every day.

About Keep Antibiotics Working

On Monday 23 October 2017, Public Health England (PHE) launched a national campaign, ‘Keep Antibiotics Working’, highlighting that taking antibiotics when you don’t need them puts you and your family at risk of more severe or longer illness. It is estimated that 5,000 deaths are caused every year in England because antibiotics no longer work for some infections and this figure is set to rise with experts predicting that in just over 30 years antibiotic resistance will kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined.

Antibiotics help ward off infections during chemotherapy, caesarean sections and other surgery. They also treat serious bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, but they are being used for everyday viral infections, such as colds or flu, where they are not effective. Taking antibiotics encourages harmful bacteria that live inside you to become resistant. That means that antibiotics may not work when you really need them.  For further information on antibiotic resistance search ‘NHS antibiotics’.