Posts Tagged bioluminescence

The science of Rudolf’s glowing nose! Siouxsie Wiles Dec 24

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Rudolf by Latharion

Rudolf by Latharion

This festive season AUT University Prof’s Steve Pointing and Allan Blackman released a marvelous little video explaining the science behind some of the unanswered mysteries of Christmas. How does Santa get to all those houses unseen in one night? And how does he get down the chimney? I’ve been sent the video so many times as they also cover the science that could explain Rudolf’s red nose. Bioluminescence of course!

Except…. they get it a little bit wrong. So I talked to the fantastic Rebecca Watson from Skepchick and explained the real science behind Rudolf’s red nose. Enjoy!

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PS Slight correction… while we are being pedantic, in the video I say that GFP is excited by UV light. This is true for wild-type GFP but there are also lots of variants now so it’s probably the case that the GFP-expressing animals are made with a modified GFP that is excited by blue light rather than UV.

PPS If you like Rebecca’s video, you can support her to make more on Patreon, and if you can think of other science stories you would like explaining like this then let us know!

Monday Micro – glowing bugs return to the park! Siouxsie Wiles Nov 10

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This Thursday, bioluminescent bacteria will once again be making an appearance at Auckland’s Art in the Dark festival. ‘Biolumination‘ is the result of my second collaboration with artist Rebecca Klee. This year sees our glowing bacteria being displayed in custom-built glass vessels which remind me a lot of the fishing lines our native glow worm Arachnocampa luminosa uses to snare its food.

The lovely people at Gather and Hunt made a neat little video about Rebecca and I which will give you a little teaser of Biolumination in action. And for those of you in Auckland, come along to Western Park, 8pm-midnight, Thursday 13th – Sunday 16th November and look for the shipping container down at the bottom of the park.

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If you are curious about last year’s piece – Living Light – check out the project blog here.

Monday Micro: glowing dog bones in Taranaki! Siouxsie Wiles Sep 29


glowing meat

From the Taranaki Daily News comes a story that is right up my street. Fiona Wallis gave her dog a bone and found it to be giving off an eerie blue light. What could it be? It’s most likely to be coming from bacteria so the questions people are likely to be asking are: what is it, is it dangerous, and how did it get on the dog bone?

What is it?

First off, its not radioactive! I think the light is most likely to be bioluminescence coming from a colony of glowing bacteria and there are many different species it could be. Almost all glowing bacteria live in water; there is only one well-documented species that lives on land. Of the species that live in water, the vast majority either live in or on fish and other creatures (like my favourite the Hawaiian bobtail squid). This will be the reason why you can sometimes see an eerie glow coming from fish if you’ve left it in the fridge for a few days.

The glowing bones in question had been packaged in salty water as one of its preservatives (also known as brine). This suggests to me that the bacteria is one that naturally lives in the sea, as they like high salt environments. An interesting feature of bioluminescence is that it is a chemical reaction that requires oxygen. This means that it won’t be possible to see light from the bones if they are in a sealed pack. But as soon as the package is opened and the bacteria get a whiff of oxygen…

I’ve made contact with the manager of the company that produced the product and he is getting samples to our lab so that we can isolate the bacteria and identify it, so watch this space.

Is it dangerous?

It’s highly unlikely. There are a couple of glowing bacterial species that produce toxins; the soil bacterium Photorhabdus luminescens produces toxins that kill insects, while some strains of Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, glow. But it’s far more likely is that it is a harmless sea bacterium.

How did it get on the dog bone?

Once we know what the source of the glow is, we can start to figure out how it got on the dog bone. I know the company involved are working with their suppliers to find out exactly where everything came from. My guess would be that somewhere in the process, something has come into contact with either sea water or a product from the sea. Another case of watch this space.

UPDATE 29/09/14: Glowing bone has arrived!

This evening we received one of the glowing bones as well as an unopened packet from the same batch. The bone is indeed glowing (below is a picture from taken on our imaging machine) but it was the only one. None of the three bones in the unopened packet from the same batch number were glowing. We’ve swabbed both sets of bones and we’ll see whether any bacteria grow over the next few days.

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Lighting up Wellington’s waterfront Siouxsie Wiles Aug 31

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For the last week, Wellington has been positively glowing thanks to the lux festival. This year I collaborated with artist Brittany Byrne to bring a touch of bioluminescence to the proceedings – rather appropriate given the genes that encode bacterial bioluminescence are known as the lux operon.

Previously Brittany created Nimbus – a work involving hundreds, if not thousands, of wooden pegs, suspended in the air and which made a very satisfying sound when touched.

Our piece was called Vibrio Nimbus, and from the outside looked like a boring old shipping containing.


But on the inside, Nimbus’ wooden pegs had been replaced with hundreds of plastic conical tubes and the sonic nature of Brittany’s previous work exchanged for light, provided by trillions of glowing bacteria. When the tubes were gently jostled, they glowed a little brighter for a brief time, thanks to the little extra oxygen being supplied. Here’s a picture I took – Vibrio Nimbus was a bit like bringing one of Waitomo’s glow worm caves to the Wellington waterfront.

vibrio nimbus

A huge thanks has to go to the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab and Una Ren for preparing all the media needed to keep Vibrio Nimbus glowing – the bacteria needed replacing with a fresh batch every other day. Brittany and her team became quite adept at growing microbes this week! And if you need reminding about the glowing Vibrio and where it is normally found, check out the Astrosquid animation below.

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Bacterial art in Melbourne – Market of the Mind Siouxsie Wiles Aug 25

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Let's make some bacterial art!

Let’s make some bacterial art!

This week I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in Australia’s National Science Week. My week started in Hobart, Tasmania, where I got to hang out with science communication superstars Carin Bondar, Derek Muller (AKA Veritasium) and Destin Sandlin (AKA Smarter Every Day), performing on stage with them at an event made possible by Science Alert.

After Hobart I traveled to Melbourne for a week of school talks followed by a weekend of fun getting people to draw in glowing bacteria, first at Market of the Mind and then at Living Science. The idea is that people draw a picture on a sheet of paper and then trace over their design onto a petri dish using a cotton swab and a solution of Vibrio fischeri, the bacterium that lives in symbiosis with the Hawaiian bobtail squid. When the bacteria have grown, I then take a photo of the glowing petri dishes and put the pictures up on flickr. You can see the pictures from Market of the Mind here.

And if you want to learn a little more about Vibrio fisheri and Euprymna scolopes watch the animation below or better yet get the beautiful book by Gregory Crocetti, Ailsa Wild and Aviva Hannah Reed.

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Monday Micro – Bioluminescent bacteria photobooth Siouxsie Wiles Apr 14

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For those curious how our bioluminescent photo booth went at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) recently, the results are up on Flickr. As a quick reminder, the light being used to illuminate the subjects was being supplied by glowing bacteria growing on large petri dishes. We used a 6 second exposure to take the pictures which has led to some interesting photos. Going by the number of blurry faces, I think it’s safe to say that most children can’t sit still for that long! Take a look and see if you recognise anyone. Here’s my favourite:


Science Street Fair Siouxsie Wiles Apr 02

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Want your picture taken by the glow of bioluminescent bacteria? Then come along to Auckland’s inaugural Science Street Fair this weekend!

Those in Auckland this weekend should come along to MOTAT on Sunday for the inaugural Science Street Fair. They’ll be a whole heap of science on display, including a hovercraft, 3D printing, DNA extractions and many more. They’ll also be plenty of scientists around so if you’ve any burning science questions then pop along to the ‘Ask the Scientist’ tent. I’ll be there with the glowing squid Rebecca Klee and I made for Art in the Dark last year, and Danny Dillon will be 3D printing a squid too. I’m also hoping to have a bioluminescent photo booth so come along and have your photo taken by the light of glowing bacteria. Here’s one I made earlier :)

By the light of the glowing bacteria...

By the light of the glowing bacteria…

science street fair

Monday Micro: Glowing genitals! Siouxsie Wiles Dec 02

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When I tell people my lab make nasty bacteria glow in the dark, they usually look at me a bit funny. They look at me even funnier when I tell them it helps us see where the bacteria are. Seriously. Everyone must have done that experiment where you put your hand over the top of a torch, and you can see the light shining through. Well, we replace the torch with glowing bacteria, and the hand with a mouse and our eyes with a sensitive camera that can pick up very low levels of light. And sometimes the bacteria turn up somewhere quite unexpected….

glowing genitals

The image above was taken by my PhD student Faz, during his studies of a bacterium called Streptococcus pyogenes. During his PhD, Faz made glowing S. pyogenes and developed a mouse model for nasal/throat carriage to test potential vaccines. Hence the glowing nose. His work has just been published in the open access journal PLOS One (1) and while you won’t find any speculation of the reason behind the glowing genitals in our paper, he has done a little musing here.

Pretty much everyone will have had an S. pyogenes infection at some stage in their life – it causes tonsillitis – and many people will be carrying the bacterium in their throats. S. pyogenes can also cause a life-threatening illness called necrotizing fasciitis, literally the flesh-eating disease, where the bacterium produces an enzyme that digests away the tissue and can require amputation of the infected limb. In fact, S. pyogenes is an incredibly versatile pathogen that can also cause skin diseases, scarlet fever and rheumatic heart disease. it is also the only bacterium that has been documented to spread through farting (2,3)!

The mouse in the picture is female, and her glowing vagina* is a great demonstration of just how flexible S. pyogenes is as a pathogen. It is also a powerful demonstration of how diseases can take unexpected turns, and glowing bacteria can show us what happens when they do.

*The lovely people responsible for the Ig Nobel’s quite liked this as great example of science that makes you laugh and then think.

1. Alam FM, Bateman C, Turner CE, Wiles S, Sriskandan S (2013) Non-Invasive Monitoring of Streptococcus pyogenes Vaccine Efficacy Using Biophotonic Imaging. PLoS ONE 8(11): e82123. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082123
2. Schaffner W, Lefkowitz LB Jr, Goodman JS, & Koenig MG (1969). Hospital outbreak of infections with group a streptococci traced to an asymptomatic anal carrier. The New England journal of medicine, 280 (22), 1224-5 PMID: 4889553
3. McKee WM, Di Caprio JM, Roberts CE Jr, & Sherris JC (1966). Anal carriage as the probable source of a streptococcal epidemic. Lancet, 2 (7471), 1007-9 PMID: 4162660

Monday Micro: Bioluminescence time-lapse Siouxsie Wiles Nov 11


As part of the work leading up to our Art in the Dark project, Living Light, Rebecca Klee and I played around with doing some time-lapse photography with bioluminescent bacteria growing on agar. A big thanks to Rhian Sheehan for allowing us to use his track Thoughts on Nature as the soundtrack. This is 4 days worth of photos condensed into just 1 minute*:

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*At 30 frames per second it came out at 7 minutes long but Rebecca decided that was way too long to watch bioluminescent bacteria for. I disagree of course. What do you think, should we make a longer version?!

Art (& Science!) in the Dark Siouxsie Wiles Nov 10


This weekend, Western Park in Auckland was transformed with the installation of 40 works of art. And a little bit of science….

Craig Neilson and Reza Fuard’s piece, Penduluminosity, takes the form of a series of giant glowing swinging pendulums, which trace a series of wave-forms when set in motion. Glimpsing the double helix of a DNA strand was just marvelous. This picture was taken by Peter Jennings:

And then there was our little installation, Living Light, a collaboration between myself and artist Rebecca Klee, the only exhibit powered by glowing bacteria.


Art In The Dark

Inside our little tent hung a circle of twelve 3D printed squid (you can catch a small glimpse of a squid being printed here or even print your own), each filled with approximately 250 billion glowing bacteria. This reliance on a living organism to bring our installation to life caused me just a little stress – I was so worried the cultures might not grow or glow properly and all we would have was a tent full of (very beautiful) squid that no one could see. But fortunately the little critters (over a trillion of them…) behaved as expected and were glowing beautifully by the time people started to arrive. And arrive they did. In fact, they even spontaneously formed an orderly queue and waited patiently to get inside our tent!

It was so exciting to see our installation come together after so much planning and hard work. It was also brilliant to see people reacting so positively to it. It makes all the hard work worthwhile! Rebecca and I are very keen to show Living Light again so, when the dust has settled, we will look into how and where we could do that. We are also keen to collaborate again so I’m sure we will be putting in an application for Art in the Dark next year.

I’d like to extend a huge thanks to everyone who has been involved in this project. It may have said Rebecca Klee and Siouxsie Wiles on the signage, but Living Light wouldn’t have happened without the hard work put in by Danny of Vivenda (who designed and printed the squid) and Benedict and Jimmy from my lab (who prepared all the media and kept the bacterial cultures ticking over). It also wouldn’t have been possible without the generous financial support of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the Univesity of Auckland (thanks to Tim Greene and Katie Elliot) and the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery. And finally I would like to thank my family for their tolerance of the time this project has taken me away from them, and for putting up with all the bacteria growing in our kitchen!

Here’s just a little sample….This is what 10 trillion bacteria look like!


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