Cell-to-Cell Calls Are Never Long Distance

2009 Anson L. Clark Lecturer Studies How Bacteria Discuss Troop Strength Before They Wage an Attack

April 6, 2009

A few decades ago, research into bacteria cells that “talk” to each other was considered quirky science. Then a discovery at the Agouron Institute by geneticist Dr. Bonnie Bassler and her mentor, retired geneticist Dr. Mike Silverman, blew the lid off a few hundred years of scientific notions.

Dr. Bassler, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, reveals the landmark scientific discovery and previews the promises it holds at the upcoming 2009 Anson L. Clark Lecture, April 9.

Silverman and Bassler, discovered that Vibrio harveyi, a harmless strain of bacteria, just sit around and grow when they’re by themselves. In numbers, this strain continues to grow—and, they glow. Consider it a primitive conference call.

About the Anson L. Clark Memorial Lecture

The Anson L. Clark Memorial Lecture began in 1970 and has drawn distinguished speakers to the UT Dallas campus every year since.

The oldest endowed lecture series on campus honors the memory of a remarkable individual who amassed a sizable fortune throughout a highly unusual and successful career — first, as an engineer, then as a physician at the Mayo Clinic and finally as a businessman in the oil and banking industries.

Clark’s philanthropic activities have for many decades supported scholarly endeavors at a number of Texas colleges and universities, including the Clark Summer Research Program and the Clark Presidential Scholarship at UT Dallas.

“Bacteria were always thought to be asocial loners,” Bassler said. “But we knew there had to be a way for them to distinguish when they were alone and when they were in groups.”

Called “quorum sensing,” the relatively new field is bursting with possibilities from “training” good bacteria to get together and protect human skin and organs, to making new antimicrobials and engineering plastic wrap to keep harmful bacteria out and preserve food freshness.

The last thing a single, invasive bacteria cell wants to do is tip off our immune system. With such low numbers, the body’s army of immunity cells would annihilate the lone intruder. So bacteria wait, says Bassler, until they have an army of their own. The only way for them to know how many of their kind—and others—are in the area is to send out chemical messages.

Bassler’s lab discovered that not only are bacteria some of the oldest communicators on Earth, they’re also bilingual.

“We’ve discovered that bacteria send out one molecule, or language, to their kindred cells,” says Bassler, “and they send another molecular message out to sense other species of bacteria around them.”

Among her top goals, Bassler wants to create a set of pharmaceutical “ear muffs” that chemically deafen communication between nasty cellular invaders like Salmonella. If the cells don’t know they have the numbers necessary to wage an attack, they probably won’t.

Bassler is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and a Howard Hughes Institute Investigator, among other top honors.

Bassler presents “Small Talk: Cell-to-Cell Communication in Bacteria” at the 2009 Anson L. Clark Memorial Lecture, on April 9, in the UT Dallas Activity Center. Presentations begin at 10:40 a.m.

Her technical presentation, “Bacterial Quorum Sensing and Virulence in Vibrio cholerae,” is scheduled for April 10. Both events are free and open to the public

Parking is available in Lot J. For additional information about either event, contact Diana Wilson-Willis at 972-883-4153 or [email protected].

Media Contacts: Brandon V. Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]

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Vibrio harvey cells

Above: Vibrio harveyi cells glowing on a Petri plate. The four circles are cells streaked on the plate in a pattern depicting the RNA molecules at the heart of quorum sensing. Below: Dr. Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University has found that the bacteria communicate by sending out molecules.

Bonnie Bassler

Dr. Bonnie Bassler

Squibb Professor of molecular biology, Princeton University



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December 14, 2018