PITTSBURGH – A researcher who discovered the universal use of chemical communication among bacteria and proposed that interfering with bacterial cell-to-cell communication could form the basis of new antibacterial therapies will receive the University of Pittsburgh’s 2018 Dickson Prize in Medicine.
Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D., who is the Squibb Professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will accept the award during Science 2018, the region’s preeminent showcase of the latest research in science, engineering, medicine, and computation that will be held from Oct. 17 to 19 in Pittsburgh.
The Dickson Prize in Medicine—the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s highest honor—is awarded annually to an American biomedical researcher who has made significant, progressive contributions to medicine. The award consists of a specially commissioned medal, a $50,000 honorarium, and travel expenses to Pitt to accept the award and present the keynote lecture during the University’s annual campus-wide showcase of scientific research.
“Dr. Bassler’s work is truly groundbreaking,” said Arthur S. Levine, M.D., Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine. “When she began her scientific career, bacteria were typically thought of as single-celled organisms that act alone. She not only showed that bacteria communicate, she demonstrated that such communication enables groups of bacteria to essentially function as multicellular organisms. These insights have revolutionized the field of microbiology.”
“This award is especially meaningful to me. Many of my scientific heroes, indeed scientists I consider to be the most daring of path breakers, have been honored with the Dickson Prize. It is a thrill to be among that group,” said Bassler. “What is most significant is that beyond me, it recognizes the spectacular scientists who have come through my lab and enabled this new scientific field to arise from scratch. I am grateful to my team and to Pitt Medicine for recognizing us with this remarkable Prize.”
After demonstrating that bacteria use multiple chemical signals to communicate—a process called “quorum sensing”— Bassler discovered and characterized previously unknown molecules involved, suggesting that bacteria harbor a multitude of chemicals with novel functions and potential uses in medicine. She discovered that bacteria communicate across species boundaries and that they use specific chemical “words” to detect self, related bacteria, and others. She showed how bacteria tailor their activities, depending on whether they are surrounded by friend or foe.
Inspired by the discovery that bacteria actively interfere with chemical communication by other bacteria, Bassler developed synthetic strategies for manipulating quorum sensing to halt virulence in pathogens. She also showed that quorum sensing can be manipulated to prevent bacteria from adhering to medical devices and to stop bacteria from forming antibiotic-resistant communities called biofilms in medical settings.
At 11 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18, Bassler will deliver the Dickson Prize in Medicine Lecture. Her talk is titled, “Tiny Conspiracies: Cell-to-Cell Communication in Bacteria.”
Bassler, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2002, is a passionate advocate for diversity in the sciences, and she is actively involved in and committed to public science education. She has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society, and the American Philosophical Society. Bassler’s other honors include the 2012 L’Oreal-UNESCO-For Women in Science award, the 2015 Shaw Prize in Life Sciences and Medicine, and the 2016 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize.