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Bioluminescence and superbugs

10 May, 2012

Glow in the dark bacteria are a novel rapid screening technique for finding new drugs to combat superbugs.

Listen to audio: Bioluminescence and superbugs

Duration: 14:02

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 last year. The Three Rs refer to:

  • replacing live animal subjects in research
  • reducing the number of animals used
  • refining experiments to minimise harm or suffering.

Programme details: Our Changing World

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