Spotlight TEDx Talk: How we make bacteria glow to save lives

Art made with TEDxChristchurch speaker Siouxsie Wiles's bioluminescent bacteria (via Siouxsie Wile)

Art made with TEDxChristchurch speaker Siouxsie Wiles’s bioluminescent bacteria (via Siouxsie Wiles)

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles deals with microbes. Specifically, she makes them glow. Why? To save lives.

“One out of every four people who are admitted into a hospital overnight in New Zealand are there because of infectious microbes,” she says in a talk at TEDxChristchurch. “We are running out of medicines to treat these infections.”

To develop new drugs to get patients out of hospitals safely, medical researchers like Wiles track and observe the bacteria that cause these infections. At Wiles’s lab — the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland — she and others work to make that task easier, using light-producing bacteria created via bioluminescent organisms.

A variety of creatures are bioluminescent — from squid to glow worms to fireflies — and Wiles and her colleagues use genes from these organisms to make microbes glow. “We use our [glowing] bacteria like mini torches,” Wiles says. “We put them inside of animals and then we use sensitive cameras to see where they are, how many there are and how that changes over time … without having to euthanize the animals.”


A simulation of Wiles’s glowing bacteria in mice (Video: Siouxsie Wiles)

Bioluminescenct bacteria allow Wiles’s lab to use fewer animals in experiments, save time and better track infections. Since glowing bacteria only shine when they are alive, Wiles can see where bacteria are thriving in infected animals with just a look — and less detective work.

“Bioluminescence is a really, really, really quick way of finding out whether drugs and antibiotics work: all we do is we take our glowing bacteria and our experimental medicines, put them together and then we look for light. And we can get an answer within hours or minutes. We don’t have to wait for the bacteria to grow on a petri dish.”

To learn more, watch Wiles’s whole talk below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker is a qualified research scientist who is a specialist in her idea — the use of bioluminescence to study dangerous bacteria. She gives a talk that is anchored in research, explaining how solving the problem of antibiotic resistance could be aided by this technology. Her talk is informative, direct and supported by clear images.


  1. Daniel

    I’d like to know what video this is from. It seems very interesting and I kinda like sciencey things

  2. Barbara

    Tedx the microbiologist left much to chance and has me wanting more information as you the bacteria Oxygen environment and migration

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