November 20, 2002: A moment with...

A moment with...
Bonnie Bassler

Photo by Ricardo Barros

This fall, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology Bonnie Bassler was awarded a MacArthur grant — usually referred to as the “genius” award — for her work on intercellular communication in bacteria. The award comes with a no-strings-attached $500,000 grant, paid out over five years. Here, she speaks with PAW’s Lolly O’Brien.

So how does it feel – you’re a genius?

That’s a laugh, that’s how it feels, it’s a laugh. So, okay, I’m not a genius. Vincent Van Gogh and Albert Einstein were geniuses. It’s thrilling. It’s like winning the lottery when you didn’t buy a ticket.

Will you use your grant for research or something personal?

I don’t know yet. When an artist wins this — a person who doesn’t even have health insurance or can’t pay the rent — it’s very clear to him or her what to do with the money. We do whatever experiment we want anyway, and I write grants to fund it. I could hire another postdoc with that money or something like that — and maybe I will — but it’s not exactly clear how that would radically change what we’re doing. I might do something just totally different with that money. It’s very overwhelming and hard to figure out the right thing to do.

And you’re allowed to do anything.

Exactly. When I was talking to Dr. [Daniel J.] Socolow, who runs the fellows program at MacArthur, I said, “What am I supposed to do with that money?” He said, “You know, Bonnie, it’s such an amazing award because there’s no measurement of what it does for a person.” He told me that if a beach house would make me more relaxed at work, then I should do that.

For me it’s the prestige of the award and the validation of my work. Now, hopefully, my postdocs will get better jobs, and before people reject my grant proposals as fringe science, they will take a harder look and think, “Maybe she’s on to something.” Our take on bacteria is really different than everybody else’s, and I suppose that’s why I won.

Tell me a bit about your work.

I want to understand how bacteria talk to each other. We and others have shown that they communicate with each other by exchanging signal molecules. Thus, the “words” bacteria use are really just molecules. We’ve shown that bacteria are multilingual: They produce molecules that allow them to speak only to members of their own species, and they produce other molecules that let them know if they are alone or if neighbors are around. And this second kind of molecule lets them know if the neighbors are the same or another species.

What is critical is that the only way the signal molecules can build up to any reasonable quantity is if a lot of bacteria are together. So, these signals allow the bacteria to count one another. Once they recognize that other bacteria are present, they change their behavior and begin to carry out processes that would be ineffective if a single bacterium acted alone. These processes include things like infecting hosts, making toxins, and exchanging DNA with one another.

What is important about our finding is that different species are using the same molecule to communicate with each other. What we want to do now is to make drugs that interfere with either the production or the detection of this widely used cell-to-cell communication molecule. This type of drug could be a new kind of antibiotic because it would keep the bacteria from recognizing they have neighbors around, so they would not know when to make their toxins or start an infection process.

How did you get involved with bacteria?

I grew up in California, and I wanted to be a veterinarian. I went to the University of California at Davis, which has a fantastic veterinary school — but every time they would cut an animal, I would pass out. We had to take a biochemistry class, and as soon as I got into biochemistry, where it was all little logic puzzles, I just loved it. I asked one of the professors, Rick Troy, if I could work in his lab, for free, and he let me. It was an amazing experience. In his lab there was a cancer project and a bacteria project. My mother had just died from cancer so I wanted to work on the cancer project, but he put me on the bacteria project, and it’s the best thing that ever happened. I never stopped working on bacteria from then on.

In one interview you mentioned your father’s reaction to the news.

Right. I called up and said, “Dad, I won a MacArthur.” My father goes: “I always thought your sister would win that,” and I said, “Dad, just say congratulations and keep your private thoughts private.” At that point he laughed, then burst into tears, and it was obvious that he was so happy and proud. I’m sure he did think my sister would win — she does urban welfare policy for a philanthropic organization. He was so overcome, it was really neat.


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