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Bonnie Bassler had set out to be a veterinarian before she fell in love with microbes while at the University of California, Davis. Then, while a graduate biochemistry student at Johns Hopkins, a chance encounter with a pioneering researcher set her down an unlikely path: trying to figure out how bacteria talk.
For more than a decade, Bassler’s work was dismissed as a bit of “fringe” research on a marine bacterium that no one cares about. But she persevered and eventually revealed a complex and crucial language. Using chemical signals similar to hormones, bacteria can count, communicate with and occasionally sabotage each other. To her naysayers’ surprise, she found that chemical language can control everything from virulence (a bacterium’s toxicity) to reproduction in many species of bacteria—including those that make us sick. Today, Bassler’s discovery of quorum sensing, as the process is called, has transformed how people think about bacteria and may lead to a new generation of antibiotics.
For her groundbreaking contributions to molecular biology, biochemistry and medical technology, Bassler received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship or “genius grant” in 2002 and has since won several other fellowships and awards. She is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Squibb Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Princeton University’s department of molecular biology, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006.
Bonnie Bassler begins by describing quorum sensing and her awe at the chatty bacteria she has spent her career studying. She then details her difficult college years, during which she lost her mother to colon cancer and embarked on a career in biochemistry. While in graduate school, she finds her calling when she meets Mike Silverman, a pioneer in the study of bacterial communication. She unravels the process behind quorum sensing as a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, and later takes her work to Princeton, where she faces a decade of dismissal by funders and much of her field for doing what they consider “crazy science.”
All that changes, however, when a MacArthur Fellowship validates her work and puts it in a public spotlight. Her lab continues to study the ins and outs of quorum sensing, but now also pursues practical ways to “beef up” communication in beneficial bacteria and cut down communication in harmful bacteria, like Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause life-threatening infections. They also examine how human cells might participate in these microbial conversations. Between her bacteria, her lab, her home and her hobbies, says Bassler, she finds a joyful, hectic balance.
Last Updated: 05-12-2009
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.