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Bonnie Bassler

Bonnie Bassler wins Canada Gairdner International Award

Congratulations to Professor Bonnie Bassler (Squibb Professor and Chair, Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University; HHMI Investigator) who has been named 2023 Canada Gairdner International Award winner along with Michael Silverman (University of Washington School of Medicine) and E Peter Greenberg (Scripps Institution) "for their discoveries of how bacterial communicate with each other and surrounding non-bacterial cells, providing a new paradigm for how microbes behave and yielding novel avenues for therapeutics against infectious diseases.” The Canada Gairdner Award is one of the most prestigious biomedical and global health awards in the world.

Bacteria are found everywhere from soil to water to the human body. Despite their simple single-cell forms, bacteria are sophisticated organisms that are remarkably adaptable to changing conditions. Bacteria play crucial roles in medicine, both as members of the microbiome, increasingly understood to contribute to human health, and as major causes of disease. The discovery of how bacteria communicate with one another, coined "quorum sensing" by Dr. Greenberg and his colleagues, is foundational. Drs. Bassler, Greenberg and Silverman are awarded for a combined body of work that spawned an unexpected field in microbiology and are also recognized for their individual discoveries that underpin its implications for all of biology, human health and disease.

Quorum-sensing studies began with an obscure bioluminescent marine bacterium called Vibrio fischeri. In the 1970s, Dr. J. Woodland Hastings and colleagues described a signaling chemical of then unknown structure that stimulated collective glowing after the Vibrio fischeri bacteria had reached a particular population density. This finding was one of the first clues that bacteria could communicate using chemical "words", but it lay dormant for a decade until Silverman, exploiting the power of genetics, identified the genes involved in this signaling pathway and characterized their functions. Silverman's elegant analyses of the role each component played provided the world's first quorum-sensing circuit and the foundation for thousands of similar circuits identified later.

Widely thought to be a function specific to Vibrio fischeri, this phenomenon did not initially gain much traction. Indeed, the idea that bacteria could communicate was deemed highly improbable. But Greenberg was intrigued and trained with Hastings before he later independently further characterized the genes Silverman had identified, and discovered a similar quorum sensing signal that controlled virulence in the pathogenic bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The term "quorum sensing" was born as he demonstrated that this phenomenon was indeed bacterial communication, and not isolated to Vibrio fischeri. He not only showed that other bacteria exhibited quorum sensing, but he also discovered nearly all major steps in its mechanism.

It was Bassler who then brought Hastings' and Silverman's findings to an unprecedented level by showing that quorum sensing is not an exception but the rule in the bacterial world. What's more, the principal reason bacteria are so successful is that they rarely act alone. Quorum sensing turns out to be essential to many aspects of bacterial virulence and antimicrobial resistance. Initially with Silverman then later independently, Bassler discovered entirely new types of quorum-sensing signal molecules, mechanisms of detection and response to those molecules, and the profound influence quorum sensing exerts over the behaviour of many bacterial species. Moving to the human health front, Bassler demonstrated that it was possible to hijack quorum-sensing mechanisms to control virulence in globally important pathogens. She also made the stunning discovery that quorum-sensing communication is not restricted to bacteria. She found that bacteria can communicate across species and, moreover, quorum sensing underlies bacterial interactions with viruses and other types of cells. For example, she showed that human gut cells use quorum sensing to communicate with resident microbiome bacteria to defend the body against invading pathogens.

The Impact:

A new field of microbiology has emerged and the discoveries of Bassler, Greenberg and Silverman are at the heart of it, shaping and defining the field we now know as quorum sensing. They have independently and collaboratively revolutionized the way we think about bacteria, completely overturning the paradigm that bacteria act independently of each other.

The originality and elegance of their work led to novel and unexpected discoveries in the field time again, laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding of the microbial world with clinical ramifications that are being realized today. For example, Greenberg's work showed promise in targeting difficult infections such as those associated with cystic fibrosis and Bassler's small-molecule therapies are much less vulnerable to development of antimicrobial resistance than are traditional antibiotics because her strategies target the quorum-sensing mechanism rather than bacterial growth. With the recent recognition that microbes are foundational to the vitality of all corners of the biosphere, understanding their biology is crucial. Bassler's work in particular has provided vital mechanistic underpinnings that foster a growing understanding of the human microbiome, the niches in which different organisms thrive, and how behavior and competition within these niches is affected during disease.

All of this serves as pivotal in understanding how the microbiome influences our health and wellbeing and provides insight into novel ways to harness microbial communities to promote health and prevent disease. Bassler, Greenberg and Silverman have undoubtedly paved the way for unprecedented new possibilities for biological solutions to the world's most pressing problems in health, food, energy, and the environment.

The Gairdner Foundation, established in 1957, is dedicated to fulfilling James A. Gairdner's vision to recognize major research contributions to the treatment of disease and alleviation of human suffering. Through annual prestigious Canada Gairdner Awards, the Gairdner Foundation celebrates the world's most creative and accomplished researchers whose work is improving the health and wellbeing of people around the world. Since its inception, 410 awards have been bestowed on laureates from over 40 countries, and of those awardees, 96 have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes.

The Gairdner Foundation believes in coming together to openly discuss science to better engage the public, understand the problems we face, and work together to find solutions. Since its founding, a number of outreach events and programs have been developed with the goal of inspiring the next generation of scientific innovators and fostering an informed society.