Biologist Bonnie Bassler wins MacArthur Fellowship

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Bonnie Bassler, a biologist whose research has revealed surprisingly sophisticated methods of communication among bacteria, has been awarded a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship.

Bonnie Bassler
photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


Bassler is among 24 scientists, artists, scholars and activists who each will receive $500,000 no-strings-attached grants over a five-year period from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The fellowships, known informally as the "genius grants," recognize people who have "shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction" in their fields.

In its announcement Sept. 25, the MacArthur Foundation cited Bassler for research that "reveals new insights into the basic biology and ecology of bacteria, findings that may have direct application in the future treatment of disease."

"Bonnie Bassler embodies some of the greatest virtues of a dedicated scientist," said President Tilghman, who is a colleague of Bassler's in molecular biology. "She started in an area of research that originally attracted little attention and, following nothing more than her deep sense of curiosity, has made discoveries that are proving important to many areas of biology, and possibly medicine. She also has a real eagerness to share her curiosity with others and has introduced many undergraduate and graduate students to the excitement of scientific discovery."

Bassler's research focuses on a phenomenon called "quorum sensing," which is a method that bacteria use for sensing how many other bacteria are in their vicinity. Quorum sensing was first discovered in a species of luminescent marine bacteria that glow with a blue light only when they have amassed into a dense population.

Bassler has identified the genetic and biochemical mechanisms that regulate quorum sensing and also has shown that these mechanisms are common to many different kinds of bacteria. Some human pathogens, for example, release their toxins only after they have established a significant infection, presumably as a way of avoiding early detection by the immune system.

Other researchers are now trying to develop antibacterial drugs that render bacteria harmless by disrupting their quorum sensing. In their most recent paper, Bassler and colleagues showed that cholera bacteria use quorum sensing to regulate their virulence.

Bassler received a B.S. in 1984 from the University of California-Davis and a Ph.D. in 1990 from Johns Hopkins University. She came to Princeton in 1994 after working as a postdoctoral scholar and research scientist at the Agouron Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

"I think my job is a luxury," said Bassler. "To me, it seems a privilege that I'm paid to do what I love, which is to come in here every day and work with wonderful, enthusiastic young people, and hopefully, with them, to discover some fundamental truths about nature."

Bassler said her first reaction was astonishment when she learned about her selection a week ago. "Over this week, I've thought about many people whose work I admire, and I just can't figure out how they picked me," she said. "It's an honor, a real honor, because this is work that I love so much."

Also among this year's MacArthur fellows are: Ann Blair, who received a doctoral degree from Princeton in 1990 and is now a professor of history at Harvard University; and Charles Steidel, who received a bachelor's degree from Princeton in 1984 and is now a professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

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