skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXI, No. 21
October 16, 2009

previous story

next story

Bacterial Conversations Are Topic of Stetten Lecture

Molecular biologist Dr. Bonnie Bassler
Molecular biologist Dr. Bonnie Bassler

Bacteria aren’t usually considered sociable creatures. But despite the prevailing vision of them as solitary, walled-off entities, bacteria have chemical languages that allow them to communicate with their own kind and even with bacteria outside their own species. Quorum sensing, a form of census taking, is essential when bacteria need to synchronize their behavior, as marine bacteria do when populations in the ocean glow and as certain pathogens do before they acquire virulence in human hosts.

Dr. Bonnie Bassler, a molecular biologist at Princeton University, describes her research as “eavesdropping on bacterial conversations” in order to translate their multiple chemical languages. She will discuss her research in this year’s DeWitt Stetten, Jr. Lecture, titled, “Intra- and Inter-Species Cell-to-Cell Communication in Bacteria.” The talk, which is part of the NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series and is sponsored by NIGMS, will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10.

Bassler and her research team have dissected the molecular processes involved in bacterial signaling. They have discovered that the luminous marine bacterium Vibrio harveyi and the pathogen Vibrio cholerae secrete chemicals called autoinducers that are detected by specific sensor proteins and they have traced the ensuing cascades of cell responses. Bassler believes that learning about the mechanisms of bacterial communication will ultimately shed light on how cells communicate in multicellular organisms, including human beings.

In addition, understanding quorum sensing could lead to drugs that are superior to current ones that kill bacteria. Medicines that disrupt quorum sensing would be less likely to lead to resistance. Without the bacterial communication that allows for the collective secretion of virulence factors that overpower the human immune system, bacteria would not be able to cause diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, pneumonia and food poisoning.

Bassler is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and Squibb professor of molecular biology at Princeton, where she has been a faculty member since 1994. She received a B.S. in biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, in 1984 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University in 1990. Bassler was a postdoctoral fellow at the Agouron Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

Her many honors include a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2002 and election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006. She heads Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology and serves as an editor for a number of journals, including Molecular Microbiology, Annual Reviews of Genetics and Cell. Bassler has been selected to serve as president of the American Society for Microbiology in 2010.

NIGMS has supported her research since 2002.

For more information or for reasonable accommodation at the lecture, contact Sarah Freeman at or (301) 594-6747.—Karin Jegalian NIHRecord Icon

back to top of page