Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator Bonnie L. Bassler of Princeton University and Jack E. Dixon, vice president and chief scientific officer at HHMI, have been elected as foreign members of the Royal Society in recognition of their exceptional contributions to science.
Fellows and foreign members are elected for contributions to fundamental research as well as for leading scientific and technological progress in industry and research establishments. This year, 44 fellows and 8 foreign members were chosen.
“Science impacts on most aspects of modern life, improving our understanding of the world and playing an increasing role as we grapple with problems such as feeding a growing global population and keeping an aging home population healthy. These scientists who have been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society are among the world’s finest. They follow in the footsteps of luminaries such as Newton, Darwin and Einstein and I am delighted to welcome them into our ranks,” said Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and an HHMI Trustee.
Bonnie L. Bassler
Bassler has made seminal studies of the process of cell-cell signaling in bacteria that have revolutionized the study of microbiology. She discovered that bacteria communicate with a chemical language through a process called quorum sensing. This allows bacteria to count their numbers, determine when they have reached a critical mass, and then change their behavior in unison to carry out processes that require many cells acting together to be effective.
Working with Vibrio harveyi, a harmless marine bacterium that glows in the dark, Bassler and her colleagues discovered that this bacterium communicates with multiple chemical signaling molecules called autoinducers (AIs). Some of these molecules allow V. harveyi to talk to its own kind, while one molecule—called AI-2—allows the bacterium to talk to other bacterial species in its vicinity. Bassler showed that a gene called luxS is required for production of AI-2, and that hundreds of species of bacteria have this gene and use AI-2 to communicate.
Bassler's research opens up the possibility for new strategies for combating important world health problems. Her team is currently working to find ways to disrupt bacterial discourse so the bacteria either cannot talk or cannot listen to one another. Such strategies have potential use as new antimicrobial therapies.
Bassler, who became an HHMI investigator in 2005, is also Squibb Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the department of molecular biology at Princeton University. She is a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2002, she was named a MacArthur Fellow. She received her B.S., in biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, and her Ph.D., in biochemistry from The Johns Hopkins University.
Jack E. Dixon
Dixon joined HHMI in 2007, coming to the Institute from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), School of Medicine, where he had served as dean of scientific affairs. Dixon had also served as a member of HHMI's Medical Advisory Board.
Dixon earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1971. After postdoctoral study at UCSD, he joined the biochemistry faculty at Purdue University in 1973. In 1986, he was appointed the Harvey W. Wiley Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry. In 1991, he moved to the University of Michigan, where he served as chair of the department of biological chemistry and held the Minor J. Coon Professorship. He became co-director of Michigan's Life Sciences Institute in 2001, but returned to California in 2003 to rejoin UCSD, this time as dean of scientific affairs.
A member of both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, Dixon has had a distinguished scientific career. His research has focused on a group of proteins called protein tyrosine phosphatases that govern a key biochemical reaction in which a phosphate group is added to another protein. The reaction, called phosphorylation, serves as a signaling mechanism between living cells. The work has implications for understanding the uncontrolled growth that is characteristic of cancer, the routing of nerve fibers, and the success of disease-causing bacteria and viruses in overcoming the mammalian immune system. Dixon continues to maintain a laboratory at UCSD, where he is also a professor of pharmacology, cellular and molecular medicine, chemistry, and biochemistry.