Opening Plenary to Focus on Bacterial Conversations

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Bonnie L. Bassler, PhD

Citation: Kidney News 15, 10/11

Bonnie L. Bassler, PhD, will deliver a state-of-the-art lecture on how bacteria talk, titled “Tiny Conspiracies: Cell-to-Cell Communication in Bacteria and New Approaches to Antimicrobials,” on Thursday, November 2, at the opening plenary.

Dr. Bassler chairs the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Her laboratory's research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that bacteria use for intercellular communication. The researchers aim to understand how bacteria detect and communicate environmental cues and then process this information to respond to it, with the goal of developing new therapies for combating bacteria.

The laboratory studies a phenomenon, called quorum sensing, which is a process that allows bacteria to communicate using secreted chemical signaling molecules known as autoinducers. Quorum sensing enables a population of bacteria to collectively regulate gene expression and, therefore, behavior.

In quorum sensing, bacteria assess their population density by detecting the concentration of a particular autoinducer, which is correlated with cell density. This “census-taking” enables the group to express specific genes only at particular population densities. Quorum sensing is widespread; it occurs in numerous gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. Quorum sensing can be used to control processes that are unproductive when undertaken by an individual bacterium but effective when undertaken by a group, thus allowing bacteria to function as multi-cellular organisms. Therapies that disrupt quorum sensing could be used to counter bacterial growth.

Dr. Bassler teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses at Princeton. She has directed the molecular biology graduate program and chaired the university's Council on Science and Technology. She describes herself as a passionate advocate for diversity in the sciences and is committed to educating the public about science.

Her remarkable contribution of national and international service includes serving as president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), chairing the American Academy of Microbiology Board of Governors, and serving as a member of the board that oversees the National Science Foundation.

Among her many awards and honors, Dr. Bassler received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the ASM Eli Lilly Investigator Award for fundamental contributions to microbiological research, the Princeton University President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Science, the National Academy of Sciences Richard Lounsbery Award, the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Dickson Prize in Medicine.

Dr. Bassler received a PhD in biochemistry from the Johns Hopkins University and performed postdoctoral work in genetics at the Agouron Institute. She joined the Princeton faculty in 1994.