Conversations in Science
for K-12 Educators

A program conceived and organized by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the collaboration of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Edgewood Sonderegger Science Center.

Thursday, May 10, 2007 at 4:00 p.m.

Bacterial Conversations: Translating and Expanding the Dialog with Organic Chemistry

Professor Helen Blackwell

About the presenter:

Helen Blackwell was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1972 and attended Oberlin College for her undergraduate studies, graduating with highest honors in chemistry in 1994. She then left the Midwest and went the West coast to pursue her graduate studies in organic chemistry at the California Institute of Technology as an NSF predoctoral fellow with Professor Robert Grubbs. Helen received her Ph.D. in 1999 and then spent three years as Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Professor Stuart Schreiber at Harvard University. In 2002, she returned to the Midwest and joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is presently an Assistant Professor of Chemistry. Her main research interests are the development of new synthetic organic chemistry methods and their application to design molecular tools to ask important questions in bacteriology and chemical ecology.

Helen is the recipient of a Shaw Scientist Award of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation (2004), an NSF CAREER Award (2005), a Research Corporation Cottrell Scholar Award (2005), a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award (2006), and a 3M Non-Tenured Faculty Award (2007). She was also selected as a MIT Technology Review Top 35 Innovator under the Age of 35 in the US (2005) and as an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow (2006).

About the conversation:

Bacteria communicate using small organic molecules and peptides to monitor their population densities. This communication process is called “quorum sensing.” At high cell densities, bacteria use quorum sensing to switch from an isolated, nomadic existence to that of a multicellular community. This lifestyle switch is significant. Only in multicellular groups do pathogenic bacteria become virulent and grow into drug-impervious communities called biofilms. These biofilms are the basis of myriad chronic infections. Similarly, certain symbiotic bacteria will only colonize their hosts and initiate beneficial behaviors at high population densities. The molecular mechanisms of the communication processes are only now being delineated. Our research is focused broadly on the design of non-native ligands that can attenuate cell-cell communication and provide new insights into its role in host/microbe interactions. This talk will introduce our research approach and highlight recent results.


Grant D. Geske, Jennifer C. O'Neill, and Helen E. Blackwell, N-Phenylacetanoyl-L-Homoserine Lactones Can Strongly Antagonize or Superagonize Quorum Sensing in Vibrio fischeri , ACS Chem. Biol., Vol. 2, No. 5, A-E.

Biofilms: A new understanding of these niicrobial communities is driving a revolution that may transform the science of microbiology

The superficial life of microbes