The L-arabinose-responsive AraC and its cognate PBAD promoter underlie one of the most often used chemically inducible prokaryotic gene expression systems in microbiology and synthetic biology. Here, we change the sensing capability of AraC from L-arabinose to blue light, making its dimerization and the resulting PBAD activation light-inducible. We engineer an entire family of blue light-inducible AraC dimers in Escherichia coli (BLADE) to control gene expression in space and time. We show that BLADE can be used with pre-existing L-arabinose-responsive plasmids and strains, enabling optogenetic experiments without the need to clone. Furthermore, we apply BLADE to control, with light, the catabolism of L-arabinose, thus externally steering bacterial growth with a simple transformation step. Our work establishes BLADE as a highly practical and effective optogenetic tool with plug-and-play functionality-features that we hope will accelerate the broader adoption of optogenetics and the realization of its vast potential in microbiology, synthetic biology and biotechnology.