SJWP 2015 FI

SJWP Hawaii State Winner – Iokua Spencer


Bioluminescent Bacteria as a Natural Water Pollution Indicator
Iokua Spencer

The environment I grew up in consisted of hand-me-downs, food stamps, and low-income housing.  Due to these circumstances, I go to a school for at-risk youth with dedicated teachers who do their best to help us succeed.  I became interested in learning how to make positive changes in my life through education. Contrary to the skeptics around me, I overcame the pressures of life and became inspired.

Much of our way-of-life depends upon the ocean; it’s Hawaii’s largest natural resource and attraction for our tourism industry because the ocean is a cultural and economic resource for Hawaiians. With the growth of land development, population, and industry it is important to always remember that the health of our state is tied to the health of our ocean.  In September of 2013, Honolulu harbor was devastated by a huge molasses spill. The marine environment was severely affected with the lack of oxygen.  Approximately 26,000 fish, various other marine species, and a lot of coral died.  This was a huge environmental catastrophe.  Storm water runoff from non-point pollution has also caused sedimentation and changed the ecology of Kaneohe Bay.  The incidence of mercury is increasing in Hawaii’s waters because of harbor waste such as boat cleaning products.  Mercury-laden products are used to clean surfaces and restore ship surfaces.  Society needs to be more aware of this growing problem and take steps to protect our ocean water as a critical resource.  This led to my interest in studying whether bioluminescent bacteria could be used as a water pollution indicator.

The global importance of my study was to develop a solution by creating a test kit that can be used globally to identify water pollution.  The significance being that using natural bacteria as a quick indicator, it will be environmentally safe in lieu of using chemicals. Two experiments were done and the following results were seen:

  • Experiment #1: The bioluminescence showed no change significant enough in the levels of light over time to be a reliable indicator of water pollution. However, it may also be an indicator that the beach water samples were “clean.”
  • Experiment #2: Because Vibrio fischeri* experienced death at different concentrations of mercury, this shows that mercury can be an effective indicator when used as a negative control in determining marine water pollution. This outcome proved that Vibrio fischeri can be used as an indicator of water pollutants such as mercury.

The study found that bioluminescent bacteria is a natural resource and can be used to indicate water pollution.  They confirm an idea presented on the Instructables website which suggested creating a bioluminescent bacterial lightbulb that may be used as a water pollution tester.


* Aliivibrio fischeri is a gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium found globally in marine environments.[1] A. fischeri has bioluminescentproperties, and is found predominantly in symbiosis with various marine animals, such as the bobtail squid. It is heterotrophic and moves by means of flagella. Free-living A. fischeri cells survive on decaying organic matter. The bacterium is a key research organism for examination of microbial bioluminescencequorum sensing, and bacterial-animal symbiosis.[2] It is named after Bernhard Fischer, a German microbiologist.[3] rRNA comparison led to the reclassification of this species from genus Vibrio to the newly created Aliivibrio in 2007.[4]