Listen to this radio broadcast from 10 May, 2012 looking at new developements in biotechnology. Glow in the dark bacteria are a novel rapid screening technique for finding new drugs to combat superbugs.
Listen to the RNZ audio: Bioluminescence and superbugs.
Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles is developing bacteria that glow in the dark – bioluminescent bacteria – as a tool for assessing how well antibiotics and vaccines work against superbugs.
What is bioluminescence?
Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Most of the world’s bioluminescent organisms exist in the depths of the ocean. The best-known examples on land are glow-worms and fireflies. The purpose of bioluminescence is not fully understood in all organisms but uses include communication, attracting prey, camouflage and self-defence.
Using bioluminescent bacteria to study the effectiveness of drugs
Dr Wiles and the Bioluminescent Superbugs Group at the Auckland School of Medicine are using genes from bioluminescent organisms and inserting them into particular disease-causing bacteria. Because light travels through flesh, when they infect mice with the bacteria, they can study what happens inside the mice by tracking and measuring the light that is emitted.
Light is only emitted if the bacteria is alive, so they can find this out very quickly, saving time and money. They can also measure the amount of light emitted, which indicates the number of bacteria present. Normally, to test a potential new antibiotic, they infect the mice, administer the drug and wait for the mice to get sick. Using bioluminescent bacteria, they can see very quickly how many bacteria there are and stop the experiment much quicker, so there is less suffering, it takes less time and uses fewer animals.
Work wins Three Rs Award
Dr Wiles’s work won her the national Ethics Advisory Committee Three Rs Award in 2011. The Three Rs refer to:
- replacing live animal subjects in research
- reducing the number of animals used
- refining experiments to minimise harm or suffering.
Learn more about the Bioluminescence Superbugs Group's research on their website.
Find out more about how bioluminescence works on the howstuffworks website.
Find out more about legislation and codes of conduct for using animals in research and the Three Rs programme, which is promoted in New Zealand.
Programme details: Our Changing World
Learn more about New Zealand research on light in our article: Light and sight – introduction.