Posts Tagged bioluminescence

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!


Monday Micro: Glowing squid to appear in Auckland! Siouxsie Wiles Nov 04

Who wouldn't want to see a load of 3D printed squid filled with glowing bacteria?!

Who wouldn’t want to see a load of 3D printed squid filled with glowing bacteria?!

For three nights this week (Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th November), Auckland’s Western Park will be transformed into a place of wonder and delight as the annual Art in the Dark festival takes place. This year over 40 artists will light up this gem of park, just off Ponsonby Road.

After seeing my animation about the Hawaiian bobtail squid and its bioluminescent invisibility cloak*, artist Rebecca Klee got in touch and asked if I’d like to collaborate with her on a piece for this year’s festival. I jumped at the chance and so we have spent the last few months bringing our ideas for our Living Light piece to life. We’ve been blogging about the collaboration here. In the process I’ve fallen in love with our 3D printed squid (so beautifully designed and made for us by Danny Dillon of Vivenda) and learned the best conditions for making the bacteria glow brightly.

It’s so exciting that showtime is finally here. Now I just hope that the bacteria glow when we need them to. One of the disadvantages of working with a living organism!

A big thanks to the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery and the Faculty of Medical & Health Sciences at the University of Auckland for funding this project, and to all the members of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab (with a special shout out to Benedict and Jimmy) for preparing media and generally being very tolerant of me being involved in yet another project!

*I’ve written about this amazing wee beastie and it’s glowing bacterial buddy before here or you can just watch the animation that inspired Rebecca:

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What I did on my holidays – revisited! Siouxsie Wiles Aug 06

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Yesterday I posted about the Bioluminescent Bacteria Art workshop I did at SkepchickCON/CONvergence. The lovely skepchicks recorded it and have just posted the video to You Tube so if you want to hear me get all excited about glowing creatures then feel free to watch!


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Monday Micro: What I did on my holidays Part I Siouxsie Wiles Aug 06

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Apologies for the lack of Monday Micro posts over the last few months. I’ve been away on holiday. And this is one of the things I got up to…. I went to SkepchickCON at CONvergence, a sci-fi/fantasy convention in Minneapolis, USA. There I did a session with some bioluminescent bacteria, where I got participants to draw a design on a piece of paper and then trace over it onto a petri dish using glowing bacteria. We then incubated the bacteria overnight and took photos of the glowing designs the next day. Amazingly, all went according to plan and the bacteria were glowing beautifully. The pictures are all up on Flickr for anyone interested. Being a sfi-fi/Fantasy convention, there is of course a Dalek and TARDIS….

A big thanks to Sarah Blakely, Jonathan Crain and Holly Langer for growing the bacteria and pouring all those petri dishes!


Monday Micro: living night lights Siouxsie Wiles Apr 29

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One of the latest Kickstarter projects to create a buzz is promising its backers a living nightlight that shines without electricity. Enter the Glowing Plant project, developed by a group of biohackers from BioCurious* in California. Launched just a few days ago, Antony Evans, Omri Amirav-Drory and Kyle Taylor have already exceeded their $65,000 target needed to create a genetically engineered plant that glows in the dark. In fact, they have already passed the $115,000 mark with over a month left to go. Their new goal is $400,000 to create a glowing rose. Check out their short video by clicking the link below:

Glowing plant vid

So how are they going to do it? Back in 2010, Alexander Krichevsky and colleagues published a paper in PLOS One showing that tobacco plants could be engineered to glow in the dark by incorporating the genes (known as the lux operon) which make the marine bacterium Photobacterium leiognathi** glow (1). The light generated by one of the plant lines they created could be detected by eye in a dark room after about 5-10 minutes suggesting they could make quite neat night lights. This was exciting stuff as previous attempts to make glowing plants had revolved around getting the plants to express the luciferase gene from the firefly, which required plants to be sprayed with luciferin, the substrate for the reaction, in order for light to be produced. In contrast, cells that express the whole bacterial lux operon glow without needing any additional cofactors.

Glowing tobacco plants

Glowing tobacco plants

Interestingly, Krichevsky declares in his PLOS One paper that he is founder of BioGlow Inc, a company which aims to develop commercially available glowing ornamental plants. BioGlow Inc is listed as a tenant of the Bio-Research & Development Growth (BRDG) Park at the Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, but otherwise doesn’t have much of a web presence.

But back to the Glowing Plant project. Antony and his team say they are planning on building on the work of Krichevsky and colleagues, making a synthetic version of the bioluminescence genes so that they will be better expressed by the plant cells. Fingers crossed!

1. Krichevsky A, Meyers B, Vainstein A, Maliga P, Citovsky V (2010) Autoluminescent Plants. PLoS ONE 5(11): e15461. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015461

*The BioCurious ethos is that innovations in biology should be accessible, affordable, and open to everyone. They have built up a complete working laboratory and training centre for citizen scientists and hobbyists to get together to do science.

**I’ve blogged about P. leiognathi before. They use their light to trick zooplankton into eating them. In a nutshell, the zooplankton ingest the glowing bacteria but are unable to digest them. The glowing bacteria mean the hapless zooplankton are then more visible to their own predators, nocturnal fish, who devour them. P. leiognathi are unfazed by all this, ending up in the fish’s digestive system which is where they wanted to be in the first place. Genius.

Astrosquid! Siouxsie Wiles Mar 27


What is the value of blue-skies research?

This is a question often asked by politicians and the public. Why should public money be spent funding science that seems to have no obvious benefit beyond generating scientific knowledge? The simple answer is that it can be almost impossible to predict what new avenues that scientific knowledge will open up. Take the Hawaiian bobtail squid, for example. What could studying this little nocturnal hunter possibly lead to? Take a guess. No ideas? Let me help you out.

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It lead to the discovery that bacteria are able to communicate with each other, including how they sense when the time is right to turn on genes needed to cause disease. I’m not sure anyone could have seen that coming! Importantly, this research has provided scientists with another potential weapon with which to fight antibiotic resistant superbugs. In a world rapidly running out of antibiotics, we need all the weapons we can get.

This animation was produced with the support of a public engagement grant from the UK Society for Applied Microbiology, to engage the services of graphic artist Luke Harris and his team. Dr Siouxsie Wiles (@SiouxsieW) is a microbiologist and bioluminescence enthusiast who heads up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Group at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She and her team make nasty bacteria glow in the dark to help understand and combat infectious diseases.

What we couldn’t fit into 3 minutes…

The Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, is just 3 cm in length and lives in the shallow moonlit waters off Hawaii. It spends its days sleeping buried in the sand, emerging at night in search of food. It has a very cunning trick to hide its shadow from fish looking for a meal, or from creatures like shrimp that it feeds on. It houses a colony of glowing bacteria (Vibrio fischeri) in a special organ on its underside. These bioluminescent bacteria shine their light down so that to any creatures looking up, the squid just looks like the moon. What is even more clever is that the squid uses its ink sac to match the intensity of moonlight hitting its back, dimming the light from the glowing bacteria as needed. This is important not just for cloudy nights but as the squid moves through different depths of water.

Baby squid are born without V. fischeri or a light organ. Instead they just have a small opening in their mantle (the bulbous bit of their body) that is bathed by sea water. What is incredible is that only V. fischeri can colonise this opening – once they do, the squid cells start to change and the light organ forms. The ability to glow is crucial though – scientists have made versions of V. fischeri which can’t glow and they aren’t able to colonise either.

Adult squid have an ingenious way of ensuring that there is plenty of V. fischeri floating around in the water to colonise baby squid. Each morning, before they settle down in the sand to sleep for the day, they expel 99.9% of the bacteria from their light organ into the sea. This serves another purpose too, ensuring the bacteria left behind in their light organ are constantly growing and have plenty of nutrients. Bacteria that run out of nutrients start to shut down to save energy. Producing light takes quite a bit of energy and the last thing the squid wants is a mantle full of lazy dim bacteria!

When scientists first identified V. fischeri and grew it in the lab they noticed something quite interesting. The bacteria only switch on their light when they have reached a critical population size. This makes perfect sense. There is no point going to all the trouble of making light if it isn’t bright enough to be seen. Each bacterium produces a chemical, called the autoinducer, that diffuses out of the bacterial cell. The more bacteria there are, the more autoinducer is produced. If those bacteria are growing in a confined space like a flask, or the light organ of the squid, the autoinducer will accumulate. Once it reaches a critical concentration, the autoinducer triggers the bacteria to switch on the genes for producing light*. This phenomenon is called quorum sensing.

Scientists then used the bioluminescence reaction to see if other species of bacteria produce autoinducers. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that lots of different bacteria use quorum sensing to signal to each other that they are in the right numbers or environment to do something, which is not worth doing otherwise. From the bacterial form of sex, to swimming, to switching on the genes needed to cause disease in plants, animals and humans. Now we just have to find a way of exploiting this to our advantage!

You can hear me chatting about the squid and quorum sensing on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme with Kathryn Ryan here (13’12”):

*For those who really want to know, the autoinducer is the product of the luxI gene. When it reaches a critical concentration, it interacts with the product of the luxR gene, and together this complex binds to a region of DNA upstream of the genes under their control called the lux box which then triggers their transcription.

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