Princeton’s Bonnie Bassler Receives $500,000 Gruber Genetics Prize for Pioneering Discoveries on Bacterial Communication

Gruber medals

The 2020 Gruber Genetics Prize is being awarded to geneticist Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D. of Princeton University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for her groundbreaking work on how bacteria “talk” to each other using molecular “languages.” This process is known as quorum sensing. Her discoveries have greatly expanded our understanding of the microbial world and opened up innovative approaches to promoting health and preventing disease.

The prize, which includes a $500,000 award, will be presented to Bassler on April 23 at The Allied Genetics Conference.

Dr. Bassler’s work has transformed how we view the microbial world. She has revealed the many different ways that bacteria communicate with each other, thus allowing them to behave as a collective group,” said Helen Hobbs, professor at the University of Texas Southwestern and chair of the selection advisory board to the Gruber Prize “Those discoveries have contributed to a paradigm shift in how we view the microbial world.”

Working first with Vibrio harveyi, a bioluminescent marine bacterium, and then with other bacterial species, Bassler has identified and described how these one-celled organisms send out molecular messages, or autoinducers, that enable them to count their numbers, determine when they have reached a critical cell density, and then simultaneously adjust their behavior to carry out group tasks, such as emitting light (in the case of V. harveyi) or releasing toxins (in the case of bacterial pathogens). More recently, Bassler and her team reported that bacteria-infecting viruses, known as phages, can eavesdrop on bacterial quorum-sensing conversations and then use the information they garner to their own advantage. This finding reveals that chemical signaling occurs across radically different domains.

Dr. Bassler’s discoveries open new vistas in basic science, but are also of practical significance,” said Allan Spradling, professor at the Carnegie Institution and member of the selection advisory board. “One of the major global health challenges of today is the emergence of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. Because of Dr. Bassler’s research, new and exciting strategies for treating bacterial disease through quorum-sensing interference are being explored. It’s a great honor to be awarding her this year’s Gruber Genetics Prize.”

For more information, visit the Gruber Foundation's website, send e-mail to info@gruber.yale.edu; contact A. Sarah Hreha at 203-432-6231; or write to: The Gruber Foundation, Yale University, Office of Development, P.O. Box 2038, New Haven, CT 06521.

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Sarah Hreha: info@gruber.yale.edu, 1-203-432-6231