In March, the Hawke’s Bay Branch of the Royal Society hosted a two day visit by Dr Siouxsie Wiles. Siouxsie is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, and head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, where she combines her twin passions for glowing creatures and nasty microbes, to better understand antibiotic-resistant superbugs and find new medicines to kill them. Siouxsie is passionate about demystifying science for the general public, and raising awareness of the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Siouxsie visited 3 intermediate schools and 6 secondary schools, where she busted some myths about scientists (very few wear white coats and work in labs), and talked about the important role of microbes in producing foods like cheese and yoghurt. Then she talked about bioluminescence, and how glow worms, fireflies and anglerfish use it to attract prey or find a mate, and other sea creatures use it to camouflage themselves.
The Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at Auckland University is using bioluminescence to look for new antibiotics. The lab is screening Landcare Research’s collection of 9,000 New Zealand fungi, in the search for new antibiotics that can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria (superbugs), like MRSA. The genes that produce bioluminescence are inserted into the DNA of these bacteria; when the bacteria are alive, they glow blue in the dark; when they are dead, they don’t. Using this technique, they can determine if a fungus growing on a petri dish is producing something which kills superbugs. If it is, the fungus is sent to Siouxsie’s collaborators at the university’s chemistry department, who freeze-dry it and make extracts from the remains. The extracts are then retested against the superbugs to see if they are still able to kill them. If so, the team will work on identifying the chemical in the fungus that is responsible for killing the superbug. To date, the Lab has screened 150 fungi, and found over 30 that are able to kill at least one of the four superbugs they are tested against. These are currently being freeze-dried and extracted for further testing.
Siouxsie’s visit was very well received, and 2 schools donated to her research. Here’s some of the feedback:
From a teacher at an intermediate school: “Thanks so very much for organising Siouxsie’s visit. What a wonderful experience for us all. The students’ discussion, following your leaving, reflected just how much they learned and also that they very much appreciated the opportunity. We all think Siouxsie is amazing, very cool indeed and are impressed that she is working so hard to find solutions to a pending disaster in the world of medicine. Lots of the kids are very keen to advance their science experiences … and this has made them even more passionate … just what we want. They went back to their classes bubbling to their teachers that they loved their afternoon.”
From a senior student: “It definitely demonstrated how fun and exciting it can be if you find a topic or area you’re interested in and pursue it as a career. I know that it gave me and probably many others the insight into how there are many different areas of science you can study and you don’t have to be a geek!”
From a biology teacher: “Thank you for organising the visit, the students and teachers loved it. Please pass on our thanks to Siouxsie, she is very passionate about her work and it certainly shows. Students said that they had a new perception of bacteria and fungi. Great to see a real scientist at work.”
From an intermediate teacher: “I love that she was not at all conventional as far as children’s perceptions of scientists go.”
From a science teacher: “I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and felt there was a great deal there to get the students thinking.”