Bacterial Lightbulb

i-932157787e8fbfa92d7d28d8dfecc0bc-59040_138339732877110_123588144352269_186721_6372576_n-thumb-510x383-55747.jpgThis year’s Cambridge iGEM team has made a tiny, wireless lightbulb filled with bioluminescent bacteria! There are two main ways of engineering luminescence in E. coli (I assume these are E. coli, correct me if I’m wrong!). One is to express the luciferase gene from fireflies, which adds ATP and oxygen to the chemical luciferin, producing oxyluciferin and yellow, green, or red light.

Since the lightbulb is blue, this bacteria is probably expressing the Lux operon from Vibrio fischeri, which use their bioluminescence in an awesome underwater symbiosis. From the Cambridge iGEM wiki:

Some strains use their ability to emit light to form symbiotic relationships. A number of deep sea fish and squids have specialised light organs which harbour populations of bacteria which help their hosts by emitting light. One such example is the partnership between the Bobtail squid and the bacterium Vibrio fischeri. At night squid hunt high in the water column, attacking from above. But on moonlit nights the prey can evade capture by sensing their shadow. The bobtail squid overcomes this by emitting light using V. fischeri, replacing the moonlight it blocks. This allows is to hunt by stealth.

The cluster of genes that causes the bioluminescence is made up of five genes, luxA and luxB make the luciferase enzyme, and luxC, luxD, and luxE produce tetradecanal, the chemical substrate that the luciferase acts on, like luciferin in fireflies. Five genes in a cluster can be moved around into other bacteria on an iGEM timescale and budget, but naturally bioluminescent bacteria are actually pretty easy to culture at home using normal kitchen ingredients to isolate the bacteria that are living on squid from the fish market.

The lightbulb is a great demonstration of their ability to engineer bioluminescence and especially interesting given the efficiency of luciferase vs. a real incandescent lightbulb. From wikipedia:

The reaction is very energetically efficient: nearly all of the energy input into the reaction is transformed into light. As a comparison, the incandescent light bulb loses about 90% of its energy to heat.

I’m really looking forward to meeting the team at the Jamboree and seeing more of their cool results!

via @labratting

UPDATE: Also check out Lab Rat’s awesome post with much much more insider info and photos about the bioluminescent bacteria!


  1. #1 mad the swine
    September 14, 2010

    So how long will this bacterial colony live, and what sort of external conditions (food, oxygen, temperature) does it need? It’s a neat idea, but I’m not certain I’m ready to treat my light bulbs like aquariums.

    Also, where’s the off switch?

  2. #2 Markk
    September 14, 2010

    Now that GE has shut its last incandescent lightbulb factory in the US can we all quit using incandescent bulbs as the baseline for how “efficient” lighting is? At least use Flourescent which would reduce power use to a third of the old stuff (or better).

    So one would say if an incandescent bulb “loses about 90% of its energy to heat” (huh? it loses 100% of its energy to heat and so does every other light source, but anyway…) that would mean perhaps if it uses 100W of power then 10W are in the form of visible light (hard to tell from usage). Then a CF bulb which uses 35W to get 10W of visible light would lose more than 70% of its energy to heat.

    You could still get a nice statistic with current stuff.

  3. #3 Lucas
    September 14, 2010

    That’s awesome! I assume the light bulb was used for demonstrative purposes and not because it’s the most efficient container for these bugs right? And in addition to the questions asked above: how much of these things would you need to illuminate an entire room?

  4. #4 Lab Rat
    September 14, 2010

    Dammit you scooped me! I have a post on this coming out tomorrow evening, although I’ve got more pictures and a bit of insider information about how the lightbulb was made :p

  5. #5 Lab Rat
    September 14, 2010

    Aaaaand it’s up! More insider information on how the lightbulb was made… http://labrat.fieldofscience.com/2010/09/bacterial-lightbulbs.html

  6. #6 Theo Sanderson
    September 14, 2010


    I’m from the Cambridge iGEM team. It is indeed the lux operon from Vibrio fischeri. The bacteria were placed in agar on Friday but they have been sitting in the fridge for part of the time since.

    Clearly we do not envisage people simply using sealed glass spheres of bacteria to light their houses, however we think it’s a nice image of what our project is about. It does raise interesting ideas however – might the future have transparent tubes piping bacteria around houses fed on food waste?

    Or might bioluminescent trees replace streetlights on our road? It’s all quite a long way away, but still an exciting prospect.

    Thanks for the blog post, we’re honoured!

  7. #7 Drake Clark
    September 14, 2010

    Very cool! I’d be happy to use them to light my house.

  8. #8 stripey_cat
    September 14, 2010

    Oooh. I love the idea of bioluminescent plants: imagine a path edged with softly glowing clumps of snow-in-summer, or a rubber plant in your bathroom to save you needing to turn on a light when you get up to go to the loo.

  9. #9 Theo Sanderson
    September 15, 2010

    And people may be interested to see our red bulb too – this uses a mutated firefly gene. http://2010.igem.org/wiki/images/c/cf/Cambridge-Wed.jpg

  10. #10 Debbie Todd
    October 13, 2010

    I actually saw the LabRat blogpost on this before I came here – I was having a look at the projects that will be showcased at this year’s iGEM. I wanted to know how many UK teams there will be and have a look at their projects before the event.

    @TheoSanderson – I love the idea of bioluminescent trees as a form of streetlighting. This would address the issue of energy consumption and is a very greentech method of lighting the streets. And, as stripey_cat says, it looks like bioluminescent houseplants could serve a double purpose as night lights.

    It hardly matters that this might not be enough to provide good working light – just the fact that low-level, ambient lighting could be generated without any damage to the environment would have a huge impact if universally adopted. It remains to be seen just how many innovative and imaginative applications will result from this project.

  11. #11 Digvijay
    August 27, 2011

    It is actually interesting to know that we are working on parallel yet similar lines.

  12. #12 TC
    February 15, 2012

    Are the lightbulbs avalable to buy anywhere yet?

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