Prof Vyv Salisbury is a microbiologist from the Department of Applied Sciences involved in applied research with bioluminescent bacterial biosensors. In 2003 Vyv obtained Wellcome Trust Engaging Science funding to put on an exhibition in the @Bristol Science Centre titled ‘Lighting up biomedical research’ with bioluminescent bacteria and flashlight fish. In 2009 she became involved with a UN backed project to evaluate medical uses of Himalayan oregano oil which gave her an opportunity to camp up at 3000m in the Himalayas whilst visiting the herb picking cooperative in the Himachal Pradesh. I met up with her to discuss her work ahead of her professorial inaugural lecture at UWE on 16 December.
You have your inaugural lecture coming up and the title is ‘Many bugs make light work: A personal journey with bioluminescent bacteria’. How long have you been researching with bioluminescent bacteria?
So relatively recently in your career?
Yes, the use of genetically modified bioluminescent bacteria in microbiology research is a comparatively recent development. There were originally only a few groups worldwide researching the applications; it’s just great that it’s taken off as it has. It’s such a useful tool.
What are the key projects you’re working on at the moment then?
At the moment bioluminescent bacteria have enormous potential as a marker to see how well cancer chemotherapy works so that’s very exciting.
What interests you the most about working with bioluminescent bacteria?
That’s easy. As a microbiologist you become used to working with bacteria that you can’t see. With bioluminescent bacteria you have a visible marker that tells you where the bacteria are and whether they’re metabolising. Other traditional methods, such as putting the bacteria into a growth medium and seeing whether they grow, are much more indirect.
So there’s an immediacy about it?
Exactly. With growth cultures you won’t have your results for 24 hours or so. With bioluminescent bacteria it’s almost instant. The other great benefit is that you can use them in-situ. I can give you an example: if we are using bioluminescent bacteria to test the presence of salmonella on a piece of meat as it’s being heated, we can see the results more or less instantly – as the salmonella is killed it will stop glowing. You can see the results with less manipulation. Previously we would have had to stop to test for the presence of bacteria at each stage by grinding up a bit of the meat and seeing whether we could culture bacteria from it.
Recently on the blog we featured a video of glowing bacteria from Dr Gareth Robinson’s work. Do you work with him and Dr Darren Reynolds? Are there others in the Faculty researching using bioluminescent bacteria?
Oh yes of course. I work with Darren and Gareth and was director of studies for Gareth’s PhD. Professor John Greenman uses bioluminescent bacteria to investigate biofilms, as does Dr Shona Nelson. Shona also uses bioluminescent bacteria to test the efficacy of probiotic bacteria, and looking at bacteria that stay alive inside protozoa.
So there’s a lot of interest in bioluminescent bacteria within the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences?
Oh yes and it’s great. As more researchers have become interested in it and we have been able to publish our results, we’ve been able to apply for more research funding and use it to buy equipment. Subsequently we’ve really built up our facilities for this research and now have state of the art technology including low light imaging cameras.
In 2009 you became involved with a UN backed project to evaluate the medical uses of Himalayan oregano oil and visited the Himalayas. How did you become involved in the project and what are the aims?
I was approached by a colleague working in India who had established Biolaya Organics to cultivate Himalayan herbs and generate sustainable employment for local people. He needed to be able to test how well the oregano oil killed bacteria and wanted to know whether we could use bioluminescent bacteria to test its effectiveness as a disinfectant. Our research so far shows that it is really effective, even when used as a vapour.
The research is funded by the UN and is interesting from a sustainability point of view as well as a scientific one. Before the local people were gathering the roots of rare mountain herbs that wouldn’t grow back and it was only just make them enough money to live. However, oregano can be picked like tea and the plant will continue to grow, which provides ongoing employment for locals and protects other indigenous herbs.
And have you been able to visit India and see the project in action?
Yes, my first trip was to a workshop in Delhi for three or four days, where I had to present a paper, but on the second trip I actually had the opportunity to stay in the Himalayas and visit the oregano fields , which was absolutely incredible.
Thanks Vyv. Looking forward to the lecture!
Professor Salisbury at her camp in the Himalayas.
Click here for more information about Professor Salisbury’s inaugural lecture
Click here to see a video of bioluminescent bacteria