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Humboldtian receives Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize

The American microbiologist Bonnie L. Bassler is being honoured for her research on communication between bacteria. Bassler, the 2016 Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award winner, shares the prize with the American microbiologist Michael R. Silverman.

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Press release of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation 

The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize comes with €120,000 and is considered to be one of the most important awards in basic medical research. Over the years, many previous award winners have subsequently been selected to receive a Nobel Prize.

Bonnie L. Bassler, professor at Princeton University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Michael R. Silverman, emeritus professor at Agouron Institute in La Jolla, are being honoured for their ground-breaking discoveries in the area of quorum sensing. This term refers to the ability of bacteria to communicate and agree on collective behaviour. For example, bacteria only produce toxins when they have multiplied in number to the point that these single-cell organisms collectively have a chance to overcome the host’s immune system. It would make no sense for individual bacteria to produce toxins. The amount of toxin would not be enough to be harmful, however it would alarm the host’s immune system.

In 2017, Bonnie Bassler also showed that the mucus in the human intestinal tract is used by the bacteria in the microbiome to produce a signal molecule  that keeps harmful bacteria at bay, the Paul Ehrlich Foundation in Frankfurt noted in a press statement. 

The discovery and decoding of these bacterial communication systems is of great medical importance. Now it will be possible to develop therapeutics  that disrupt or prevent this communication between bacteria. Such therapeutics could in future be used instead of antibiotics and will constitute an important weapon in the fight against multi-resistant pathogens.

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