An Adventurer in the 21st Century

Molecular biologist works to unravel the mysteries behind glow-in-the-dark bacteria

By Rita Buettner

basslerpicBonnie Bassler was a doctoral student completing graduate work in biochemistry at The Johns Hopkins University in the late 1980s when she heard about a science meeting in Baltimore.

It was free and she could drive downtown herself in her Ford Escort. She sat through several talks, but it was geneticist Mike Silverman’s talk that caught her attention. He described how he was researching glow-in-the-dark bacteria who, when they reach a certain cell number, all turn on their lights together.

“It made the invisible world visible. I thought that guy is either crazy or a genius,” said Bassler, who earned her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Johns Hopkins. “I don’t know what inspired me to have the courage to run up to him and hang on his podium and say, ‘Let me be your post-doc.’”

To her surprise, Silverman consented. The research they took on together paved the way for a career that has taken her to Princeton University, where she is the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology. In her career, she has become a MacArthur Fellowship Recipient, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has received special recognition from the World Cultural Council and in 2015 shared the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine.

Bassler will return to Baltimore to deliver the keynote lecture, “Tiny Conspiracies: Cell-to Cell Communication in Bacteria,” at Loyola University Maryland’s 2016 Grand Seminar on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, at 6:30 p.m. in McGuire Hall East. The lecture is free and open to the public.

In her lecture Bassler will speak about her research, which shows that as bacteria grow and divide, they release molecules that serve as a proxy, helping them track how many bacteria are there. When they reach a certain number, they all change behavior at once—in a collective action.

“We all know about collective activity. If you want to move a piano, you get your friends and you go one, two, three, and you move it,” Bassler said. “This is like command and control of the troops.”

bacteriaToday that research is accepted. But 20 years ago when Bassler and Silverman were working side by side in a laboratory, their findings were new—and surprising. “This bacteria is so much more sophisticated than we thought,” she said.

As she does in the classroom, Bassler plans to make her speech at Loyola accessible even to those without a science background.

“I believe scientists in the 21st century have a social contract with the nation to get out of the lab and explain their science,” said Bassler, who teaches a course at Princeton designed for non-science majors. “Many people think they are not scientifically minded, or that science is boring, or not relevant, so this class is to convince students that to have a civilized society, that you have to know about science. Many of the issues we vote on are, in fact, science.”

Because colleges and universities are educating tomorrow’s leaders, Bassler feels it is especially important for those graduates who have an understanding of science. “The idea is to make informed citizens who think science is wondrous who can actually vote on what they think, not what someone else has told them.”

This semester Bassler is teaching her students about the Zika virus, genetically modified food, and forensic DNA, delving into Scientific American and other media the students will be able to turn to after graduation. “It’s not an old class, it’s about right now, this idea of being an adventurer in the 21st century.”

To Bassler, being an adventurer in the 21st century means overseeing a lab full of students who are advancing her research.

“The people who come to my lab are super courageous,” Bassler said. “They’re smart and they’re curious. And somehow they’ve picked this project. Their parents are saying, ‘Go cure cancer!’ They’re not saying, ‘Go work on glow-in-the-dark bacteria.’ I do believe they are doing something toward applications. They are working toward the very first step on that pathway.”

Doing research can be particularly challenging as significant discoveries are few and far between. So it takes stamina and curiosity and commitment.

“What you are trying to do is prove yourself wrong. You have to be able to live with incomplete knowledge,” she said. “Then there are these few moments where, for reasons you don’t understand, you’ve got it. And you say, ‘Aha!’ Often it’s a putting of ideas together, a sort of a framework of ideas in your head, of the ways things work. But it’s infrequent. The dry spells last a long time. You have to be able to weather those.”

Many of her students carry the research they are doing in her lab with them after they graduate and go on to conduct research in their post-doctoral labs—and they collectively come closer to understanding the glow-in-the-dark bacteria.

“Who would have thought that from this crazy thing Mike Silverman was talking about in Baltimore 20 years ago there are applications in food, in health, in the environment?” she said. “Bacteria are very mysterious. I spend half my time thinking we have come so far… and the other half thinking we don’t understand it at all.”

Learn more about the Natural and Applied Sciences Grand Seminar at Loyola University Maryland.

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