USC Establishes Center for Biofilms
Biofilms, which form when bacteria adhere to a wet surface, underlie many chronic diseases and infections. J. William Costerton will head the new interdisciplinary unit, the nation's first.
Costerton was recruited to establish the USC Center for Biofilms at the School of Dentistry, an interdisciplinary center that will study bacteria attached to surfaces.
“This will be the first biofilm center at a great university,” Costerton said.
“Bill will provide leadership and advocacy for multidisciplinary research that engages faculty from dentistry, medicine, engineering and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences,” Hal Slavkin, dean of the USC School of Dentistry, said. “We are thrilled to have recruited this world-class magnet faculty to USC.”
Anthony Michaels, director of the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, said, “Dr. Costerton is the world leader in biofilm research, something that touches the research activities of scholars across the entire university. It also touches practical issues of benefit to us all, ranging from dental decay to medical implants to bioremediation of pollutants.”
Costerton comes to USC from Montana State University-Bozeman, where he was director of the Center for Biofilm Engineering for more than a decade.
Not only is Costerton a pioneer in the study of biofilms, he coined this term in a 1978 Scientific American article.
Plaque on teeth, the slimy gunk that clogs drains, and a child’s middle-ear infection are all biofilms, which form when bacteria adhere to a wet surface.
“We looked at surfaces in nature and saw that bacteria weren’t growing as ‘floaters,’ they were growing as 15 percent by volume cells and the other 85 percent slime,” Costerton said.
“The model of ‘floaters’ wasn’t bad for acute diseases, but we don’t have diphtheria and typhoid any more,” Costerton said. “Biofilms represent chronic diseases, infections we have now: kids’ middle-ear infections, prostatitis in men, cystic fibrosis, all device-related infections – a hip or a knee replacement.
Biofilms have caught on, he said. “In a paper in Science in 1999, we said 65 percent of all diseases in the developed world are biofilms,” Costerton said. “Now the NIH says 80 percent.
"And The American Society of Microbiology held a weeklong biofilm meeting last November: 850 people came, from 32 countries. The idea has arrived.”
Costerton, who has more than 580 publications to his name, has studied biofilms in an array of environments: on surfaces of human teeth, upon lung surfaces, inside pipes, on boats and coral, and on medical devices implanted in humans.
“The wonderful thing about USC for me is that there’s everything here: a wonderful oral health center, great orthopedics, a wonderful cystic fibrosis clinic at Children’s Hospital – everyone whom I could possibly want to work with,” Costerton said. “I just love working with engineers, and you have two engineering research centers right here.
“It’s a dream to me to be at a top-notch university with all these high-level teams,” Costerton said.
Honors bestowed upon Costerton include the 2003-2005 Honorary Professorship in the Advanced Wastewater Management Centre at the University of Queensland, Australia; the Excellence in Surface Science Award from the Surfaces in Biomaterials Foundation (2002); Marian E. Koshland Seminar Series Lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley (2002); and an honorary degree, Doctor of Science Honoris Causa, University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
In 2002, Costerton was added to the Institute for Scientific Information’s Highly Cited List (www.isihighlycited.com), which lists the 250 most-cited individual researchers in 21 subject areas as a measure of their influence in research.
He is an Appointed Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1997) and has received the Isaak Walton Killam Memorial Prize for Scientific Achievement (1990) and the Sir Frederick Haultain Prize for outstanding achievement in the physical sciences (1986).
Prior to his appointment at Montana State, Costerton spent 23 years at the University of Calgary, where he taught biology and held two chairs in microbiology. He has also taught at MacDonald College of McGill University; completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge University; and from 1960 to 1969 was dean of science at Baring Union College, Punjab, India.
Costerton, a native of British Columbia, earned his Ph.D. in bacteriology in 1960 from the University of Western Ontario.
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