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Bonnie Bassler

  • American scientist
  • Born 1962

Bonnie Lynn Bassler, Ph.D (born 1962) is an American molecular biologist who revolutionized microbiology with her discovery of the use of chemical communication between bacteria known as quorum sensing, as well as the idea that disruption of chemical signaling could be used as an antimicrobial therapy. She is a professor at Princeton University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute in microbiology and virology with a research focus in cell-to-cell communication in bacteria. She received the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences (2009), the Richard Lounsbery Award (2011), and the L’Oreal-UNESCO award (2012), the MacArthur Fellowship (2002), the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize (2016) for her paradigm-changing scientific research and was made a member of the Royal Society and the American Philosophical Society in 2012.


So, okay, I'm not a genius. Vincent Van Gogh and Albert Einstein were geniuses.




We mostly don't get sick. Most often, bacteria are keeping us well.




We've all been sick; we're all afraid of infection. I think the easiest application to help people understand what quorum sensing is and why it's important to study is to tell them that if we could make the bacteria either deaf or mute, we could create new antibiotics.




When antibiotics first came out, nobody could have imagined we'd have the resistance problem we face today. We didn't give bacteria credit for being able to change and adapt so fast.




Everybody, as soon as they do a good experiment, their first thought in this lab is, 'That can't be right. I must have screwed it up. What did I do wrong?' And that's the best kind of scientist because they're filled with this self-doubt. And if I'm going to be honest, that's who I am. And it's what drives me.




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.




Science is difficult and slow no matter who you are. The hours are long, and the glorious 'aha' days come only very infrequently. You have to keep believing that if you put in the hours, those days will indeed come!




You can find bacteria everywhere. They're invisible to us. I've never seen a bacterium, except under a microscope. They're so small, we don't see them, but they are everywhere.




Bacteria are single-celled organisms. Bacteria are the model organisms for everything that we know in higher organisms. There are 10 times more bacterial cells in you or on you than human cells.




It's incorrect to think of bacteria as these asocial, single cells. They are individual cells, but they act in communities, exactly the way people do.




As a kid, I loved doing puzzles, solving riddles, and reading mystery books. I also loved animals and always had pets.




Think about all kinds of infectious diseases, like mumps or measles or chicken pox. When a virgin population encountered those pathogens, it ravaged the population, and now they're childhood diseases, and eventually they won't even be that. That's our relationship with bacteria, going through time.




It's a manic-depressive life. You run in here, you open your incubator, your experiment makes no sense, you think, 'I hate this job.' Then ten minutes later you think, 'Well, now, maybe I'll try this or I'll try that.' You do it because you know there will be an 'a-ha!' day.




My job is to teach someone something they never knew, but it should not be like you're in a prisoner-of-war camp. I'm supposed to be teaching you but also entertaining you. You're giving me an hour of your time. It should be lively. We're on a hunt, it's a mystery, and it's amazing.




If a bacterium is trying to infect you, it won't secrete alone, because your immune system will block it. Bacteria will hide until they can all act together and make an impact.




What's great about bacteria is you have a surprise every day waiting for you because they're so fast, they grow overnight.




I was a huge athlete as a kid. I was on every sports team.




My bacteria glow in the dark - no human being doesn't like that.




If I didn't teach the aerobics class, I wouldn't come, and I need to stay in shape. I've got a whole wardrobe of sleeveless dresses and strapless gowns, not to mention the short skirts.




Most bacteria aren't bad. We breathe and eat and ingest gobs of bacteria every single moment of our lives. Our food is covered in bacteria. And you're breathing in bacteria all the time, and you mostly don't get sick.




Bacteria live in unbelievable mixtures of hundreds or thousands of species. Like on your teeth. There are 600 species of bacteria on your teeth every morning.




We're scientists; we're curious about how nature works, but we're also do-gooders. It's fantastic to think that the same experiments we'd do to understand how information gets into cells could have a practical side to them, too.




When antibiotics became industrially produced following World War II, our quality of life and our longevity improved enormously. No one thought bacteria were going to become resistant.




By weight, you are more human than bacteria, because your cells are bigger, but by numbers, it's not even close.




I realized that lab research was the perfect path for me. It allowed me to spend every day figuring out mysteries/puzzles that have to do with what make us alive. What could be a bigger mystery or puzzle?




I am lucky because I get to work with the smartest, most creative, and most devoted group of students and postdoctoral fellows imaginable.




I went to UC Davis because I wanted to be a vet. It's a great profession if it's right for you, but it's memorizing the bones and the muscles, and I am terrible at stuff like that. Also, there's a lot of blood and gore involved.




I want to make a drug. I want the science to be more than imaginary, where I think, 'We're learning these fundamental principles, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.' I think we are doing that, but I want to do something really practical. I want to actually, in my lifetime, help people.




I think the easiest application to help people understand what quorum sensing is and why it's important to study is to tell them that if we could make the bacteria either deaf or mute, we could create new antibiotics.




The goal of scientists is you hope that the thing you're working on is bigger than the thing you're pipetting into that tube at that moment.




I remember the day we found the gene for the inter-species signaling molecule like it was yesterday. We got the gene, and we plugged it into a database. And we immediately saw that this gene was in an amazing number of species of bacteria. It was a huge moment of realization.




You live in intimate association with bacteria, and you couldn't survive without them.




Think about multicellularity on this Earth. Every living thing originally came from bacteria. So, who do you think made up the rules for how to perform collective behaviors? It had to be the bacteria.




All these bacteria that coat our skin and live in our intestines, they fend off bad bacteria. They protect us. And you can't even digest your food without the bacteria that are in your gut. They have enzymes and proteins that allow you to metabolize foods you eat.




I think being open-minded about what Nature is trying to tell you is the key to being creative and successful.




In my lab, we are always thinking about how cells, bacterial cells, can talk to each other and then organize themselves into enormous groups that function in unison.



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