Bonnie Bassler discovered that bacteria “talk” to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks. The find has stunning implications for medicine, industry — and our understanding of ourselves.
Bonnie Bassler studies how bacteria can communicate with one another, through chemical signals, to act as a unit. Her work could pave the way for new, more potent medicine.
Why you should listen to her:
In 2002, bearing her microscope on a microbe that lives in the gut of fish, Bonnie Bassler isolated an elusive molecule called AI-2, and uncovered the mechanism behind mysterious behavior called quorum sensing — or bacterial communication. She showed that bacterial chatter is hardly exceptional or anomolous behavior, as was once thought — and in fact, most bacteria do it, and most do it all the time. (She calls the signaling molecules “bacterial Esperanto.”)
The discovery shows how cell populations use chemical powwows to stage attacks, evade immune systems and forge slimy defenses called biofilms. For that, she’s won a MacArthur “genius” grant — and is giving new hope to frustrated pharmacos seeking new weapons against drug-resistant superbugs.
Bassler teaches molecular biology at Princeton, where she continues her years-long study of V. harveyi, one such social microbe that is mainly responsible for glow-in-the-dark sushi. She also teaches aerobics at the YMCA.
“She’s really the one who’s shown that this is something that all these bacteria are doing all the time. And if we want to understand them, we have to understand quorum sensing.” Ned Wingreen, Princeton, on Nova ScienceNOW
Should we keep the outdoors out of hospitals? Ecologist and TED Fellow Jessica Green has found that mechanical ventilation does get rid of many types of microbes, but the wrong kinds: the ones left in the hospital are much more likely to be pathogens.
Jessica Green wants people to understand the important role microbes play in every facet of our lives: climate change, building ecosystems, human health — even roller derby. This University of Oregon professor (also known by her derby name “Thumper Biscuit”) is using non-traditional tools — like art, animation, and film -– to help people visualize the invisible world.
Why you should listen to her:
Jessica Green is an engineer and ecologist who specializes in biodiversity theory and microbial systems. As a professor at both the University of Oregon and the Santa Fe Institute, she is the founding director of the innovative new Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE) Center that bridges biology and architecture. Jessica envisions a future with genomic-driven approaches to architectural design that promote sustainability, human health and well-being. She is currently spearheading efforts to model buildings as complex ecosystems that house trillions of diverse microorganisms interacting with each other, with humans, and with their environment. This framework uses next-generation sequencing technology to characterize the “built environment microbiome” and will offer site-specific design solutions to minimize the spread of infectious disease and maximize building energy efficiency.