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Biological Chemistry

Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award: Helen Blackwell

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Sarah Everts
February 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 8

Credit: Jason Varney Photography
Credit: Jason Varney Photography

Eavesdropping on bacteria may seem like an unusual career choice for a chemist, but the fact that they use a molecular language made it an appealing challenge for Helen Blackwell. She was one of the first of an increasing number of chemists to learn the molecular language of bacteria, known as quorum sensing. She has since designed molecular “words” that meddle with bacteria’s ability to form biofilms, coordinate infection, and even orchestrate bioluminescence.

This work has led Blackwell to win a Cope Scholar Award “for her insight and ingenuity that led to the establishment of a new chemical language to control deleterious bacterial processes such as pathogenesis and virulence.”

Born in Cleveland, Blackwell grew up in northeastern Ohio. After receiving a B.A. in chemistry from Oberlin College, in Ohio, she moved west to California Institute of Technology to pursue a Ph.D. with Chemistry Nobel Laureate Robert H. Grubbs. Blackwell then went to Boston for a postdoc at Harvard University with Stuart Schreiber. In 2002, she joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as an assistant professor and received tenure in 2008.

When Blackwell started her independent career, her team first built chemical words used by bacteria and then started modifying them to see whether she could expand the lexicon of bacteria. The molecular words used by bacteria include such diverse chemicals as homoserine lactones and modified peptides.

Blackwell “astutely recognized that she could use chemistry to intercept and/or direct bacterial conversations by creating her own small-molecule language. Using organic synthesis, she has generated compounds that inhibit or activate quorum-sensing processes,” notes Laura L. Kiessling, a chemical biologist at UW. Some of the molecules Blackwell built prevent bacteria from orchestrating group activities such as infection, whereas others seem to lubricate conversation. Blackwell recently cofounded Apartia Pharmaceuticals, in Madison, to pursue the potential therapeutic applications of her lab’s molecules.

“Given this impressive record of accomplishment, one might suppose that Dr. Blackwell had studied quorum sensing or some aspect of microbiology as a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow. She did not,” Kiessling adds.

“I’m deeply interested in what actually makes molecules bioactive and how chemists can modulate that by tinkering with their molecular structures,” Blackwell says. “Quorum sensing is a real playground for that philosophy.”

Now, Blackwell says her team is “moving into more complicated systems.” Molecular conversations very frequently happen at the interface of bacterial and eukaryotic cohabitation—everything from nitrogen fixation in plants to chronic infections in humans. Blackwell wants to figure out the role of quorum sensing in interactions between bacteria and eukaryotic cells. “We’d like to understand how quorum sensing impacts host colonization and see if we can use nonnative molecules to perturb any potential cross talk,” she says. She’s also interested in studying the possible role of chemical communication in biofilms, where hundreds of bacteria from different species live, compete, and cohabitate.

When she’s not in the lab, Blackwell enjoys traveling and spending time in the outdoors, but these days, she and her husband are kept pretty busy with their one-year-old baby, Hannah, she says.


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