Light is Amazing

At the University of Auckland we love the journey of discovery. As New Zealand’s pre-eminent research-led institution, our passion is to make a difference to our society, and the world. One of the ways we do this, is to shine a light on infectious diseases.

Light is amazing

This little light

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, head of our Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, describes herself as a microbiologist and bioluminescence enthusiast. She leads a team of passionate scientists who, in a nutshell, make bacteria glow in the dark to better understand disease.

So, what is bioluminescence and how do we use it to Achieve the Amazing?

Bioluminescence means “living light” – it’s the light produced by living creatures, like glow worms, fireflies and even some bacteria. Bioluminescent bacteria are abundant in the ocean – they are what produces the light that anglerfish use at the end of their glowing fishing rod to attract a meal. Bioluminescence is one of the by-products of a simple chemical reaction produced by the creatures.

Siouxsie Wiles
Dr Siouxsie Wiles

We wrote the word “Amazing” using naturally bioluminescent bacteria that microbiologist Siouxsie isolated from a fish bought from the supermarket.

“Drawing with bacteria onto agar is like drawing with invisible ink on jelly,” she says. Wherever bacteria are applied to the agar, they grow up overnight, and wherever they grow, they glow.  “The solution of bacteria is colourless and dries pretty quickly so it’s very hard to see where you have already ‘painted’. And you have to apply just the right amount of pressure or you will cut into the agar.”

The process took about an hour and involved carefully tracing over the words using a paint brush that Siouxsie dipped into the solution of bacteria. “Getting the straight lines was really hard,” she says! “And we had to wait all night, until the bacteria had grown, to find out if it had worked. That was so nerve-wracking!”

The science behind Amazing

At the University of Auckland, we are using bioluminescence to understand more about infectious microbes and to find new medicines to kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs.Siouxsie and her team take the genes that fireflies and naturally bioluminescent bacteria use to make their light and put them into nasty superbugs, making them glow.

“It means we can use light to give us a quick and easy way of telling us how many of our nasty superbugs we have in a sample – the more bacteria there are, the brighter the light,” says Siouxsie. “We measure the light using a machine called a luminometer, or a sensitive camera system. Because the chemical reaction requires energy from our nasty microbes for the light to be produced, only living cells glow - so bioluminescence is also a great way to tell if our bacteria are dead or alive. We use this to search for potential new antibiotics.”

Why is it important?

Infectious diseases kill millions of people around the world, and here in New Zealand are responsible for one of every four overnight admissions to hospital. The world is also running out of medicines to treat infections – experts predict that within the next 10 years we will have run out of antibiotics. This means that common infections will be deadly. But it also means things like surgery and cancer chemotherapy will become life-threateningly dangerous, as these patients are currently given antibiotics to prevent them from getting an infection during surgery or as a result of chemotherapy. Using bioluminescence allows us to speed up the discovery and testing of new medicines.

“Bioluminescence is a beautiful example of the importance of curiosity-driven basic scientific research,” says Siouxsie. “The scientists who were studying why and how fireflies glowed in the 1960s and 1970s had no idea that scientists like me would be using the genes they discovered to search for new medicines.

“It’s always exciting when you find out something new but I’m most excited about a project we have started in collaboration with Associate Professor Brent Copp in the School of Chemistry and Dr Bevan Weir at Landcare Research, one of New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes. We are looking for new antibiotics and are screening a unique collection of fungi from New Zealand and the South Pacific to see if any are able to kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Penicillin, the first antibiotic discovered, comes from a fungus, and New Zealand has fungi found nowhere else on Earth so who knows what we may find!”

The team

“I’ve had the privilege to work with some incredibly talented and dedicated postgraduate students and scientists in my lab over the years. Currently we are a small team of four: Dr James Dalton is a research fellow who works on the microbe that causes the lung disease tuberculosis (TB), Mr Benedict Uy is a research technician working on the fungi project and Ms Hannah Read is a PhD student looking at how nasty microbes evolve.

I’m really excited that we have a group of students who will start working with us next year on the fungi project. My group also works really closely with Dr Simon Swift’s group in our department - we collaborate on quite a few projects around the discovery and development of antibacterial compounds.”

Can I help?

Yes you can! If you’d like to adopt a fungi and support the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab to find new medicines, check out their donation page.