Bonnie L. Bassler receives the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2021

January 28, 2021

The highly renowned prize goes to Bonnie L. Bassler, who is an External Scientific Member at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, and to Michael R. Silverman—both are honored for their discoveries on "quorum sensing" in bacteria

Michael R. Silverman (left) and Bonnie L. Bassler were honored for their discoveries in bacterial communication.

"Is there anybody out there?" Bacteria too want to know what is going on around them—they can communicate with each other and exchange information. To do this, bacteria have a whole arsenal of molecules with which they can inform each other about what is going on in their environment. The term "quorum sensing" was coined for this communication—the sending and receiving of signals among bacteria. Shared behaviour often makes sense only when a certain quorum is reached. The production of toxins is one example for this concerted action: a single bacterium would have no effect in the host and may only attract the attention of the immune system. In a sufficiently large group, however, the toxin can exert its effect and the immune system can be overwhelmed at the same time—a clear advantage for the bacteria.

This communication between bacteria was discovered by Bonnie L. Bassler and Michael R. Silverman. Silverman had first shown in the 1980s that the blue-green glow of squids emanates from coordinated bacteria. Bassler, who worked at Silverman's lab after finishing her PhD, then discovered in the early 1990s that there are even more “communication” molecules in bacteria. Both showed in their research that collective behaviour is the rule not only among multicellular organisms, but also among bacteria. This year's Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize honors Michael R. Silverman, Emeritus of the Agouron Institute in La Jolla, and Bonnie L. Bassler of Princeton University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for their discoveries.

In the press release of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation, Thomas Boehm, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, also comments on the research of the two prize winners: "The significance for microbiology and medicine has only recently been recognized in its full scope. Only after decades of tenacious research and after many outstanding publications were critics convinced that not only Vibrio fischeri and Vibro harveyi have mastered the art of bacterial communication, but probably all bacteria. This has led not only to a fundamental shift in perspective in bacteriology, but to entirely new approaches to antibiotic research."

Bonnie L. Bassler is a microbiologist, researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, director of the Institute for Molecular Biology at Princeton University, and an External Scientific Member of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology.

In order to strengthen the international scientific network of the Max Planck Institutes, the Max Planck Society nominates outstanding scientists as External Scientific Members of an institute. Other External Scientific Members of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology are Jörg Hacker, Fritz Melchers and Philippe Sansonetti.

Michael R. Silverman is also a microbiologist and worked from 1982 until his retirement at the Agouron Institute in La Jolla, of which he is a co-founder.


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