From making bacteria glow to explaining science on the radio

Infectious microbes are responsible for one in every three deaths worldwide, killing a staggering 14 million people each year. My work combines my twin passions of microbes and the production of light in living organisms, known as bioluminescence, to better understand how to prevent and fight microbial infection. The 3Rs principles are deeply embedded in my research. I am always consciously looking for ways to improve the quality of the science my team carries out, whilst ensuring that our work uses as few animals as possible and that their welfare needs are considered.

Several years ago, whist working as a postdoc at Imperial College London, I made a bioluminescent strain of Citrobacter rodentium, a bacterium that infects laboratory mice in the same way as strains of food poisoning E. coli. I wanted to look at the natural spread of disease rather than using artificial methods of rodent infection. I designed an experiment involving one artificially infected mouse living with uninfected mice and used biophotonic imaging to track the bioluminescent C. rodentium as it spread from mouse to mouse. I was excited to discover an important difference between the artificial and natural infections. Bacteria that are shed in the faeces of infected mice are ‘hyper-infectious’; they go on to infect other mice at a dose that is 1,000 times lower than bacteria grown in artificial laboratory media, are readily transmitted from infected to naïve animals and infect different niches within the gastrointestinal tract.

This simple experiment led to a major refinement of the C. rodentium infection model, making a more realistic model for human disease while requiring fewer animals to undergo the more invasive oral gavage procedure. In 2005, a vet who I worked closely with at Imperial suggested that I apply for the inaugural 3Rs award that had just been announced by the NC3Rs, which I went on to win.

Winning the award was an amazing experience. I was able to talk about statistics with the then Science Minister Lord Sainsbury and was invited to present a plenary on experimental design at the 3rd Australian Health and Medical Research Congress in Melbourne in November 2006. But the most valuable thing I gained from winning the award was the understanding that scientists shouldn’t keep their research from the public, just because it involves the use of animals. This gives the impression that we have something to hide. We don’t.

When asked to go public with the award, I was initially worried I would become a target for anti-vivisectionists. With some gentle persuasion I agreed to have my name appear in the press, and Imperial and the NC3Rs quickly organised an intensive day of media training to prepare me for any media interest. Yet, there was no onslaught from the press, as I had expected. The experience taught me that I was wrong about the perceived hysteria that had previously stopped me from talking about my research in public. From that day I became more vocal in public and am really glad I did. I’ve met many wonderful journalists who just want the science explained.

I now work as Head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. My research focuses on several deadly microbes including Staphylococcus aureus (the hospital superbug MRSA) and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the cause of TB). The 3Rs forms a central part of my research; we have replaced the use of mice in many of our experiments with ham, caterpillars and zebrafish embryos, and we continue to develop more relevant models using natural rather than artificial routes of infection. In 2011 I was awarded the New Zealand National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee 3Rs prize.

Since moving to New Zealand I have gone on to combine being an active researcher with a passion for communicating science to the public, including talking about the use of animals and the 3Rs. I am a blogger and podcaster, and have a fortnightly science slot on our national radio station. In 2011 I worked with a professional graphic artist, who animated a short script I had written about fireflies and my research. Uploaded to YouTube, ‘Meet the Lampyridae’ has had over 5,500 views to date. A similar version of the animation was also distributed to schools. For my contributions to science communication, I was awarded the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Media Communication and the Royal Society of New Zealand Callaghan Medal in 2013.

Just last week I spoke to a diverse public audience about my research. Afterwards, a member of the audience came up and told me I had completely changed her opinion of the use of animals in research. She had never heard of the 3Rs and told me I had opened her eyes, forever.

Also in the news: 

Inaugural prize given for improving animal welfare in research

A researcher's innovative approach to refining medical research on animals has been awarded the inaugural Replacement, Refinement and Reduction (3Rs) ...

Subscribe to our newsletter