Expert on the tiny conspiracies of bacteria kicks off 2020-21 Maury Strauss public lecture series

Story by Matt Chittum

virginia techBacteria, including harmful strains, wait patiently inside the body until their numbers multiply, before they launch a cooperative attack against their host’s cells.

Understanding how bacteria communicate with each other helps scientists learn how to disrupt their conversations and stop infections, according to Bonnie Bassler, the Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology and chair of the department of molecular biology at Princeton University, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

Bassler will describe how bacteria synchronize their actions via a phenomenon called “quorum sensing” on Sept. 3 as the first speaker in the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture series, hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke.

Bassler’s lecture, “Tiny Conspiracies: Cell to Cell Communication in Bacteria,” starts at 5:30 p.m. and will be virtually accessible via Zoom. Attendees need to register in advance online.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, at least the first four public lectures this fall will be presented virtually. Registration details to view the lecture will be available on the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website.

“The speakers at this year’s Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture series are the kind you might expect in research capitals like Boston, New York, San Francisco, or London but we are bringing them to Virginia Tech,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “As we begin the season, these science thought leaders and innovators will be in town virtually, so we want to make sure they experience the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Roanoke area as if it were an in-person visit. We are counting on the community of people who have faithfully followed the speaker series since it began in 2011 to connect with us online and keep our momentum going.”

The 2020-21 public lecture series features a Nobel laureate among the eminent group of invited speakers covering medical topics from how genes regulate sleep to vaccines and the immune system, and societal issues, such as health surveillance and privacy and the role of religious leaders in eliminating HIV/AIDS.

The free public lectures have become a mainstay in Roanoke over the years, with many speakers drawing audiences of more than 200 people. The series is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the importance of bringing leading-edge scientists to Roanoke.

Bassler kicks off this year’s series with her peek into the secret life of bacteria.

“All bacteria can talk to each other,” she said in a 2017 TED Talk. “They make chemical words, they recognize those words, and they turn on group behaviors that are only successful when all of the cells participate in unison.”

Harmful bacteria couldn’t make a person sick in small numbers. Instead once they get inside an organism, they wait as they multiply, and when they sense critical mass, they launch their virulent attack.

“We want to be able to interfere with that conversation,” Bassler said.

In her lab, researchers work with a bacterium called pseudomonas that is often fatal for people with cystic fibrosis and compromised immunity, and which commonly causes infections for patients with catheters, stents, and breathing tubes.

Scientists identified the molecule this strain of bacteria uses to speak and altered it to turn off quorum sensing instead of turning it on. As a result, the bacteria were inhibited from both spreading through tissue and from releasing its toxins.

Bassler believes this discovery could form the basis of new antibiotics, and her lab is already at work with engineers to embed the inhibitor molecule in materials that could be used to make infection-resistant medical devices.

Bassler is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Science Board. She has received numerous awards, including the Liberty Science Genius Award and the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science award.

Bassler is also an accomplished science communicator. In 2009, she presented a TED Talk lecture about bacteria communication. She has also been awarded the Princeton University President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award, and the National Association of Biology Teachers’ Distinguished Service Award.

Other presentations in the 2020-21 Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture series include:

For more information about the lecture series and registration, please visit the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s website.


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