The chemical is known as auto-inducer 2 (AI-2), a rather bland, pedestrian name for a substance that could eventually cure cholera, strep, staph - any bacterial disease, anywhere in the world.
The potential that's there is why Bassler and the 18 students and employees who work in her lab spend hundreds of hours a week digging into the minute workings of AI-2 (and its cousins auto-inducers 1 and 3). And it's also why she's a scientific celebrity, the sort of scientist who, when appearing at conferences, inspires a chorus of whispers. Like V. harveyi when it's about to glow, people signal to each other, pointing and saying, "There she is: Bonnie Bassler. Should we talk to her? Let's talk to her."
A bit ironically - but only a bit - Bassler drinks from a coffee mug inscribed "Diva." She doesn't consider the label insulting; she embraces it. Diva behavior gets results. She's officially a genius now, thanks to the "genius grant" bestowed on her by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, so why not put the diva personality trait to work?
It's useful for dealing with the National Institutes of Health, for instance. Since she started the lab, Bassler has applied for an NIH grant many times. For the first several years, she could guess why she was turned down: The idea of quorum sensing had not really caught on. Bacteria communicate? Oh, yes, that's interesting, but it's hardly a cure for cholera. Application rejected.
But when the NIH turned her down again in 2002 - after the MacArthur came through - Bassler decided to pick up the phone. "I explained the situation," she says politely. "And my qualifications." Whatever she said, it worked. She got funding from the NIH a few months later.
Now, grabbing the telephone in her office and speaking into the receiver, she jokes, "They think I'm a genius! So what's your problem?"