Written by
Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications
March 30, 2023

Bonnie Bassler, chair of molecular biology and the Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology, has won the Canada Gairdner International Award, one of the most prestigious biochemistry prizes in the world, for her discoveries in the field of quorum sensing – the radical finding that bacteria talk to each other. Professor Bassler is honored with her former postdoc adviser Mike Silverman and a colleague Peter Greenberg “for their discoveries of how bacteria 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.”

“I have followed the Gairdner Award for my entire career,” said Bassler. “Each year, I am awestruck by the pioneering scientists selected as winners. I never dared to imagine myself a member of that group, so winning the prize far exceeds my dreams. Also, it is most meaningful to me to receive the Gairdner Award together with my spectacular mentor Mike Silverman. Mike made the groundbreaking discoveries that launched the field of quorum sensing. As the field gained prominence soon after Mike’s early retirement, sadly, he was not recognized as the field’s founder. By selecting Mike as a Canada Gairdner Award recipient, the Gairdner Foundation has set the record straight. Thus, I am doubly happy about receiving the award.”

Bassler’s group has demonstrated that interactions across all domains of life — eukaryotic, bacterial and viral — all depend on quorum sensing. For example, human intestinal cells use quorum-sensing molecules to communicate with bacteria of the gut microbiome, to help the body fight off disease. She also discovered that “eavesdropping viruses” can hijack the information encoded in quorum-sensing signal molecules to infect and kill quorum-sensing bacteria. Bassler’s team has invented quorum-sensing interference strategies for development into new medicines.

“Our view is that continuing to study bacterial quorum sensing will lead to new methods to combat infectious diseases,” she said. “Our focus is on antibiotic resistant infections. Because our anti-quorum-sensing compounds target bacterial signaling, not bacterial growth, we expect our therapies to be far less susceptible to antibiotic resistance than traditional antibiotics.”