16 Aug 2020

Assoc. Prof Siouxsie Wiles on how glowing superbugs can help develop new medicines to fight infection

From Smart Talk, 4:06 pm on 16 August 2020
Siouxsie Wiles with a flask of bioluminescent liquid

Siouxsie Wiles with a flask of bioluminescent liquid Photo: University of Auckland

Bioluminescence (which literally means ‘living light’) allows glow worms to lure food, fireflies to find a mate, and nocturnal squid to camouflage themselves from predators. The light is a by-product of a simple chemical reaction, and only living creatures can glow. But can it be harnessed for new medicines?  

Siouxsie talks about how bioluminescence is used to better understand the infectious microbes that make us sick, and answers a wide range of listener questions in an online at-home version of the Raising the Bar series (which is normally held in front of audiences in bars around central Auckland).

Covid-19 is the focus of a lot of the talk, but it traverses many subjects, and provides an illuminating insight into the work her lab is performing by using glowing bacteria to understand superbugs and find new antibiotics to combat them.

About the speaker

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Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles describes herself as a microbiologist and bioluminescence enthusiast but to many she is “that pink-haired science lady”. Siouxsie studied medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, followed by a PhD in microbiology at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxford.

She spent almost a decade at Imperial College London, before relocating to Aotearoa New Zealand as a Health Research Council Hercus Fellow in 2009. Siouxsie heads up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, where she combines her twin passions to understand infectious diseases and to find new antibiotics. 

Siouxsie also has a keen interest in demystifying science; she is a tweeter, blogger, podcaster, and media science commentator (notably on RNZ National’s Nine to Noon show), and has worked with artists to make living works of art for various exhibitions in Aotearoa and overseas.

In 2017 she published her first book,‘Antibiotic resistance: the end of modern medicine?’, and recently collaborated with her daughter to make a kid’s show about microbiology.

Siouxsie has won numerous awards for her research and science communication efforts, including the UK National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) 3Rs prize, the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize, and Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Callaghan Medal.

She was one of three finalists for the 2018 Kiwibank New Zealander of Year award and in 2019 was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to microbiology and science communication.

During the lockdown period for COVID-19 Siouxsie was a regular guest on all broadcast media explaining the science behind our response to the coronavirus.


Photo: University of Auckland

Raising the Bar was recorded in association with the University of Auckland