VIDEO: The Science and Art of Bioluminescence, #SkepchickCon

This year, we added more Sandboxes to our SkepchickCon programming at CONvergence, and they were incredibly popular. Sandboxes are the CONvergence term for interactive workshops, one of the ways the con provides activities for both children and adults to enjoy. For us, this is an ideal scenario for providing science education to all ages.

The Science and Art of Bioluminescence Sandbox, led by New Zealand microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, involved a presentation on bioluminescence while participants created glowing art by drawing with bioluminescent bacteria. It was such a hit that we could fit only about half of those interested in the room, so Siouxsie had the brilliant idea of setting up shop in our party room and working one-on-one with anyone interested in creating their own glowing masterpieces.

You can see all the artwork (created in the Sandbox and in our party room) on our Flickr page here. (To download your own work, click on it, then click on the three dots in the lower right corner and choose View All Sizes.)

The video is edited, as shown in the transcript, to include only Siouxsie’s presentation and the basic steps for creating the art.

The Science and Art of Bioluminescence video

Featuring Dr. Siouxsie Wiles
Recorded by David McConnell
Edited and transcribed by Melanie Mallon
Conversion and titles by Jason Thibeault, with designs based on the work of Donna Mugavero.

The Science and Art of Bioluminescence transcription

Siouxsie Wiles: So, it says 3:24, and we’re kind of not scheduled to start til 3:30, but I think we’ll just start, if that’s okay, ‘cause we’re kind of [inaudible]. My name is Siouxsie Wiles. Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for coming. It’s my first Convergence. I’m so excited. It’s kind of the first time I’ve done anything like this, so I’m going to apologize now for anything that goes hideously wrong. You might not even realize it’s gone hideously wrong

Nicole Gugliucci (in audience): Until we all die.

SW: Yeah, yeah. So rule number one, we’re gonna be working with microbes. They’re not dangerous, but don’t swallow them. Rule number—don’t swallow them, because they will make you sick. You’ll feel a bit rough.

And don’t stick your fingers in them and lick your fingers. There should be some alcohol on the table, so if you think you’ve got some on your fingers, just give your hands a bit of a rub with the alcohol. These are live microbes, so just bear that in mind. But they won’t jump out of the petri dish and eat you or anything like that.

OK. So what I’m gonna do is explain to you a little bit about what bioluminescence is. Talk to you a little bit about some of the creatures that glow, ‘cause I’m kind of absolutely just obsessed with them.

Participants: Woo!

SW: Yea! Yea, microbes! Yea, glowing microbes.

So, what I have planned. I hope I have a little demo of some bioluminescence for you, which will mean plunging you in the dark and having something glow at us. As with all kind of science things, I as a scientist think it’s more voodoo, so sometimes things don’t work, even though it’s supposed to. So we hope we’ll have a flash of light, but you never know. So I apologize in advance if there is no flash of light.

Then what we’re gonna do. I have some glowing bacteria. I call them glowing bacteria, but they’re not actually glowing at the moment, I don’t think. But what I want you to do is, When I say, you’ll get some petri dishes. I will explain to you how I want you to draw your design. You’ll get to paint your design in bacteria. And then we’re gonna try and incubate them overnight. And then we’re gonna take some photos of them tomorrow if they’re glowing. And then we’re gonna put them up on Flickr so that you can see your handiwork. There basically is gonna be no coming back tomorrow and seeing them. We’re going to sort all that.

The caveat to that is that they might not actually be glowing tomorrow. So these microbes have been on a really, really long journey. I am British, but I live in New Zealand, and we FedExed these bugs from New Zealand to a lab here, and then the guys in the lab—I don’t know if there’s anyone here who did that for me because I have no idea who they were—but these lovely people put them into the culture and grew them for us, and they’re not looking—it’s like, maybe they’re just a bit jet-lagged. So they’re not looking fantastic, and I’m just a bit worried that they haven’t grown enough to be nice and glowy tomorrow. But, what I’m gonna try and do. It might take me a year. I’m gonna ask you to give me your designs, and if we don’t have anything to show you on Flickr tomorrow, over the next however many months, I will try and do your design for you, and we will put it up on Flickr, so you will get to see what you drew.

So when I ask you to draw, what I’m gonna do is give you a piece of paper, ‘cause the best way to draw these things is to draw a picture of whatever it is on paper, put your petri dish on the top and then trace over the image, through the petri dish, using the bacteria. ‘Cause then you can see where you’ve been, because you are working with invisible ink, essentially. All right?

So then what I want you to do is maybe put your name or something on that piece of paper, then give me that piece of paper and I will take that, and then if it all goes horribly wrong and there’s nothing glowing tomorrow, over the next however many months, I will try and do that for you, and then you will see your design in lights. How does that sound?

[Participants clap and cheer. Siouxsie catches sight of Dr. Who angel and Wows for a moment.]  

All right, so, as I said, my name is Siouxsie. I am a microbiologist, so I am interested in small things. Bacteria and viruses. I’m actually someone who works with infectious diseases, so the nastier the virus and the bacteria, the better, as far as I’m concerned. I’m amazed by how something as small as a little microbe can get inside of our really complicated bodies, and then sometimes in the space of about four days can leave you a dead little moosh on the ground. I just find that incredible. And so, I just kind of want to know how they do that, and that’s kind of what I’ve made a career out of.

The other thing I’m really interested in are things that glow in the dark. I find the creatures that glow just amazing, and what I’ve managed to do for a career—believe me, I can’t believe I get paid to do this for a living—is I get to take the genes from things like fireflies and glowing bacteria, and I get to put them inside of really nasty bacteria and make really nasty bacteria glow in the dark, which is kind of awesome. So you can see them coming and run screaming.

So, the reason this is really useful is that for some of the bacteria that I work with, they take a really long time to grow, so we have one bacteria in particular, which we call Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis, a lung disease. It takes about 24 hours to divide, so it takes about 6 to 8 weeks for us to get colonies on a petri dish. The kind of thing that we would see tomorrow with the bacteria that we’re going to use today. Now TB is a really, really nasty disease. About one-third of the world’s population have it and have no idea. Probably in this room, there will be a number of people who are harboring this bug in their lungs, and you’re not infectious, so that’s good. Otherwise, we’d be kicking you out. But you know, if somebody coughs on you, it only takes 5 bacteria to infect someone. Four and a half thousand people die every day from TB, and we basically have run out of drugs to treat it. We now have strains of TB that are so drug resistant that only treatment options are to incarcerate people for basically as long as they’re infectious, or to cut out the bits of infected lung and hope they have enough left to survive with. So it’s a really nasty disease.

So in my lab in Auckland, we are interested in trying to find new drugs. And we use bioluminescence to kind of speed up this process. So normally what would happen is you would take your bacteria and you would grow it, and you’d take some drugs and you kind of fling the two of them together, and then you plate out the bacteria on the petri dishes, and then you see did the bacteria survive or did they die. So with TB, that can take two months, but if we have glowing bacteria, the really important thing about bioluminescence is that it requires living organisms. So if the drugs worked and the bacteria died, we can see straight away, because we just measure light rather than waiting for them to grow. So we can do those kinds of tests in about two days rather than two months, so that’s kind of one of the things we do with it.

The other really amazing thing about light is that it can travel through flesh. So who has done that experiment where you put a hand over a torch. Right? What happens?

Participants: Flashlight. Flashlight!

SW: Right, flashlight!


Nicole Gugliucci: This is the British Invasion [theme of this year’s CONvergence]. This crowd should understand.


SW: Flashlight! So you see this amazing red light coming out the other side because those are the wavelengths of light that can travel through your hand. And then you can see it.

So this is one of the other things we do with our glowing bacteria. So we use them as a flashlight inside of animals. So if we, again, if we’re trying to find new drugs, we have to test those drugs in animals before we can test them in people. And we use our glowing bacteria to see whether the drugs are working using much fewer animals than if we didn’t have glowing bacteria, so the bacteria are inside of the animal. They are glowing if they are alive. We add our drugs. They stop glowing. We just have really sensitive cameras that can pick up the light coming out of the animal if those bacteria are alive. So that’s kind of why it’s really useful.

A little bit about the creatures that glow, so bioluminescence, so here’s your first lesson about bioluminescence. Lots of people ask me about the glowing cats. Do I make glowing cats for a living. I don’t, and what’s really different about what I do and the cats thing is that those glowing cats are not bioluminescent. They are fluorescent, which is a very, very different thing. So fluorescence is that you take a protein and when you hit it with a wavelength of light, the electrons get all excited and they jump out of their orbits, and when they fall back in again, they emit another wavelength of light, and that’s the wavelength you can see. So those glowing cats, you put them under UV, and the protein that they had, called green fluorescent protein, will then fluoresce this beautiful green color, and that’s what we see.

With bioluminescence, it’s a chemical reaction. So we take a couple of chemicals and we mix them together, and we get light as a result of that chemical reaction. So it’s very, very different. And this is one of the reasons that it requires live cells, because they require energy that is part of this chemical reaction.

So I have some of the chemicals that I’m going to put together, and hopefully, they will flash and we’ll see it. But they don’t require this excitation. They don’t require us to shine a light at them to get them to glow. You just put the chemicals together, and then they glow.

This reaction has evolved many, many times, in lots of different creatures, for lots of different purposes. In the U.S., you guys have got an amazing example of bioluminescence. What is it?

Participants: Fireflies!

SW: Fireflies! They are incredible! So who knows what fireflies use their light for. Yes, Evie?

Eve (Siouxsie’s daughter): Bioluminescence.

SW: Yes, so what do they use their light for? Why do fireflies glow?

Participant:: To get girls

SW: To get girls! They do. So they use it to find the opposite sex. To find a boyfriend or a girlfriend. So what happens is, the females are kind of hanging around in the bush, and the males fly around and they flash. And what’s incredible about fireflies is that every species has their own language, has their own particular kind of flash. So the males flash, and if a female sees a flash that she likes, then she responds. And so they start this little dialogue. The male can find out where the female is, and then he comes down and he . . . does the business.

But there are some very clever females who’ve exploited this to find some food. So they pretend to be the female of the male’s species, but they’re not, and so they do this flash, and the male comes down, thinks he’s going to get lucky, and instead, he gets eaten. How amazing is that?

[Uncomfortable laughter]  

How amazing is that? Very cool.

So in New Zealand, another one of my favorite organisms is called the glow worm. So this is a little caterpillar of a fly, actually, and they glow and they use their light to attract food as well. So they make these amazing silk hammocks, and they live in caves, and then they drop down these, what we call, fishing lines of silk. And then the flying insects are attracted to the light, probably because they think it’s the cave exit, and they get stuck in these fishing lines, and then they get devoured.

What’s really cool about the glow worms is the adults. So they spend 11 months of the year as this little larvae, and then they form a cocoon, and then they hatch out as a fly, a bit like a mosquito, but with one really important difference. They don’t have a mouth. So their only job is to find a mate, lay some eggs, and then die, usually exhausted and rather hungry. And then those eggs hatch up and become the glow worms again.

Another one of my favorites is the glowing fish from Finding Nemo. Angler fish. So they are amazing, and they really are as ugly as they look. They’re incredible. And they use their light to, again, to attract food. So they kind of wave it around. What they use to glow is actually a bioluminescent bacteria that they provide a house for, and then this bacteria kind of glows, and then the fish attract their food.

Another really cool thing about the angler fish. So they live in the really, really deep sea. They find it difficult to find a mate. So what the males do when they find a female is they bite her, and then they release an enzyme that fuses his lips to her body, and then over time, they basically atrophy so that all that’s left are the gonads.

So the female now has sperm on tap.


And not only that, she can have more than one male biter. So she has more than one pair of gonads. So now she doesn’t have to find a male in the deep sea. She’s found one or several, and they’re there with her for life. How awesome is that?


I could do this all day. So what I’m gonna do—


Give me another! OK, so let’s do some drawing. So I want everybody to grab a petri dish or two. And then I want you to take a piece of paper. You gonna have to share the Sharpies, unless you have a pen or something. I want you to trace around your petri dish.

So everyone has a stack. Take your petri dish, and then I want you to trace the petri dish on your piece of paper, and then inside the piece of paper, I want you to draw your design.

[Edited out some drawing time]  

SW: Just pay attention to me for a minute. OK, so there’s a piece of paper and a petri dish. It has an up and a down, okay? Whatever you do, don’t stick your fingers on the petri dish because whatever’s on your fingers will grow on that petri dish and it will get in the way of our glowing bacteria, all right?

Don’t breathe on it because whatever’s in your breath will also grow on this petri dish. So we have the lid and then we have the dish that has the jelly in it, all right? What I want you to do is place the dish with the jelly on the paper side, preferably on the top, and trace around that so you’ve got your circle. And within that circle, draw your design.

Bear in mind this is your pen [holding up Q-tip]. Right? This is your pen. You can draw as complicated as you want, but when you start, you will realize how difficult this is. OK? So, bear in mind this is your pen. I would try something simple to start with. Hopefully, there’s enough for a couple of petri dishes for everyone, so you have one that you can muck up, and then one that won’t be. Okay?

Everybody draw your picture.

[Edited out some drawing time]  

Tell you what I’m gonna do. So if you’re interested in the creatures that glow, I’ve teamed up with a graphic artist, and we’ve made some animations about bioluminescence. They’re about 2 to 3 minutes long. Each of them talks about one of the creatures that glows, and then what is a use for bioluminescence in science. So one is about mind?. One of them’s about NASA, who used bioluminescence to search for extraterrestrial life. I’ll leave it at that. We’ve done one about a little squid that uses bacteria like an invisibility cloak. And then we’re about to do one on glow worms. And actually, we’ll take suggestions, if there are other ones that you want us to do.

Participant: So is the animation about the glow things or did you actually make the animation using the glow bacteria?

SW: No, no, no. It’s an animation about the creatures.

Participant: [inaudible] would be awesome.

SW: So what I’m going to do, I’m gonna put some cards on the tables. They’ve got some QR Codes, for those who know what they are. On the back, they have the animations, they’ve also got a YouTube channel, and they have my email and Twitter address, so people who have questions or they want to know more, you can come and get in touch.

Okay, how’s everyone doing with their designs?

Eve: I’m done.

SW: Great!

Okay, all right, so I’m going to bring round the bacteria.

Participant: Bring round the bacteria!

SW: I just hope we have enough. On each bench is hopefully a white dish. That’s for your used Q-tips. Just shove them in there when you’re finished. Again, don’t suck them. Don’t do any of that kind of stuff.

[Edited drawing time]  

SW to one table of participants: I’m gonna put the bacteria in here. You’re gonna put your petri dish over the design, and then do your design on there. You get your Q-tip really wet. You want to be able to see liquid on here. That means that there’ll be a good kind of base for them to grow in. If you can’t see it, there’s probably not going to be much growing.

Participant at table: I’m a bit of a nerd, so what type of bacteria is it, if you don’t mind me asking?

SW: This is vibrio —-. They’re a bit smelly.

[Edited drawing time]  

SW: Okay, does anybody want to see the glow. Should we make something glow?

Participants: Yes! [Cheers]

SW: So in this little cartridge here, I’ve got two chemicals, but they’re separate. We have a lovely assistant here, Eve, who is going to pour these into a jar for me, and then we’re going to fill it with water. Hopefully, they’ll glow, and we’ll turn the lights out and you can see it. Okay? All right.

[Siouxsie and Eve pouring cartridge contents into glass jar. Contents a bit stuck.]  

SW: We might be here all day. Turns out they’re a little pouty. [Taps contents until they go in, then adds water.]

Can we have the lights off? For just a minute to see? [Swishes around glowing contents. Audience cheers.]

There you go. Bioluminescence!

[Clapping and cheering.]  

Participants: Do it again! Do it again!

[Starts a second one.]  

SW: So the chemicals are called luciferins and luciferase. There are lots of different kinds, but they’re all called luciferins or luciferase, so these are just two of them.

Participant: So you don’t know what color you’re going to get?

SW: No, it’s always, . . . The deep sea ones are always the kind of bluey color. Fireflies can be greeny colored. There are beetles that have got green light and red light. And that’s all it is, it’s the enzyme, the luciferase, that changes slightly, that changes the coloring.

Participant: Can they control that?

SW: Yes, by mutating. And also by changing the pH.

Participant: Give it time and positive [inaudible].

SW: Can we just have the lights off again? See if this will glow?

[No glow this time.]  

I don’t think we’re gonna get anymore out. So those of you who’ve finished with your petri dishes, if you’ve had enough, there’s plenty more to go around. If not, thank you for coming, and hopefully, fingers crossed, there’s something glowing tomorrow, and you can see it on Flickr.

Featured image of stacks of glowing petri dishes courtesy of Siouxsie Wiles.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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