It is our pleasure to begin an annual tradition of hosting a few reflections from the incoming president of the ASM.
by Bonnie L. Bassler
On July 1, as I start my term as ASM President, I am reminded of three ominous curses of dubious ancient origin:
- May you live in interesting times.
- May you come to the attention of those in authority.
- May you find what you are seeking.
May you live in interesting times: Clearly, these times qualify. Microbes will be at the heart of solutions to our most pressing problems: the environment, food, energy, and health. The BP oil spill began on day -79 of my term. Microbes are coming to the rescue and ASM expertise is on the scene (see the earlier post in this blog). Let us hope that lessons have been learned. In his inauguration address, President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” It may be happening. The National Academy of Science’s Board on Life Sciences recently released their report: A New Biology for the Twenty First Century. The US Cabinet Secretaries of Energy and Agriculture requested a series of workshops to discuss how to implement the new biology. A first workshop, focused on food and fuel, was held in DC last month and I was invited to participate (day -27 of my term). Workshop members were asked to develop scientific challenges for the decade to be proposed to Congress for funding. Together with several other ASM members in attendance, I strongly advocated the understanding and appropriate use of microbes to synthesize new fuels, clean up the environment, optimize crop production, etc. Our rallying sound bite: Microbes: the world’s only unlimited renewable resource!
May you come to the attention of those in authority: On May 20, with quite some fanfare, Science published a manuscript: Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. On that same day (day -42 of my term) the ASM Public and Scientific Advisory Board (PSAB) released a position statement offering a balanced perspective on the manuscript, the status of the field of synthetic biology, and its regulation. A number of ASM members, including myself, gave expert opinions in newspapers, on the radio, and on TV. President Obama requested his Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of the implications of this scientific research and other advances that may lie ahead in this field. I will testify at the first Commission hearing on July 8 (day +8 of my term—at last we’re into positive numbers!). I feel well equipped to represent us. Last year I was the organizer and chair of the National Academies of Sciences Keck Futures Conference on Synthetic Biology. I continue to learn about new developments in the field, and I am expertly advised by our PSAB staff, our new PSAB Chair Roberto Kolter, and other knowledgeable ASM members. My specific role is to compare and contrast the engineering perspective with that of the biological and genetic sciences, and to explain how approaches represented by synthetic biology differ from other approaches to biological manipulation. I will also address what has been accomplished and what is likely to be accomplished in this field and what I think are important obstacles to the advancement of synthetic biology.
May you find what you are seeking: Over this past year (day -365 to day 0) as President Elect, I got to know the Society inside and out. I learned what remarkable accomplishments 40,000 volunteers can achieve. I saw our members donate huge blocks of time for the good of our discipline and the health of our planet. I became fully convinced that collectively we have the potential and the expertise to make the world healthier, to enable a sustainable relationship with our environment, and to ensure the promise and prominence of science and technology in our culture. It has been a magical and eye-opening year. I am beginning to understand the vast breadth and depth of this organization and the position of its members in leading the nation and the world in all in matters touched by microbes.
There’s nothing like a few ominous curses to get the blood flowing. I am eagerly looking forward to this coming year with the hope that I can make significant contributions to the ASM and to our community at large. I will do my best to further enhance our reputation in public policy, education, outreach, and scientific advancement. Now at day +1 and counting, I look forward to meeting you!
Bonnie Bassler is the Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. She has been a member of the ASM for over 25 years. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her lab studies quorum sensing as a mechanism of chemical communication among bacteria.