University of Oregon scientist wins American Society for Microbiology award


Merck award honors beneficial microbe researcher Karen Guillemin

Karen Guillemin

EUGENE, Ore. -- Karen Guillemin, assistant professor of biology at the University of Oregon Institute of Molecular Biology, will receive one of the American Society of Microbiology's (ASM) most prestigious awards at the society's annual meeting this week.

Guillemin is being honored both for her creative research on pathogens as well as her outstanding contributions to the study of "beneficial microbes," an area of inquiry so new that the first ASM-sponsored national conference on the topic was held just last April.

"Though microbes often are viewed with fear or contempt as the source of infectious scourges, most are innocuous or even beneficial to us," said Guillemin.

The Irving S. Sigal Merck Award is given by the society (the world's oldest life science organization) in memory of Sigal, who was instrumental in early discoveries of HIV/AIDS therapies. The award is given to researchers who are no more than three years beyond completion of postdoctoral training in microbiology or infectious diseases.

"This award has extra cachet because the American Society of Microbiology is one of the nation's premier science organizations," says George Sprague, head of the university's biology department. "Karen Guillemin's science has this wonderful combination of creativity, rigor and willingness to move out and tackle important newproblems."

Guillemin pursues two lines of quite different but complementary inquiry on harmful and beneficial bacteria. Her research on Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria responsible for the majority of stomach ulcers and gastric cancer, has defined how stomach cells perceive and respond to this bacterium. Guillemin uses approaches that survey the whole genome of the host and bacterium. In addition to her focus on H. pylori, her newest line of research explores the dialogue between animals and their resident community of microbes using the model organism zebrafish. Her lab already is showing that the presence or absence of microbes may be as important as genetic factors for normal development.

Guillemin says her research is possible "only because of the amazing zebrafish resources available at the University of Oregon." Zebrafish research was pioneered by the late University of Oregon biologist George Streisinger, and today the university is home to the Zebrafish International Resource Center (ZIRC) and the Zebrafish Information Network (ZFIN).

Guillemin's work with H. pylori is funded by the American Cancer Society and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award. Her study of beneficial microbes is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to her regular appointment at the University of Oregon as an assistant professor of biology, Guillemin holds adjunct assistant professorships in microbiology at Oregon State University in Corvallis and in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She earned her bachelor's degree in biochemical sciences with highest honors at Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges. Her doctoral work at Stanford University was in the area of developmental biology. She continued her training at Stanford in microbiology where she began her H. pylori work as a Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell postdoctoral fellow.

Guillemin was nominated for the Merck award by Sprague and Tom Stevens, a University of Oregon chemistry professor. Both are ASM fellows and members of the University of Oregon Institute of Molecular Biology. ASM fellows are elected through a highly selective, annual peer-reviewed process, based on their records of scientific achievement and original contributions that have advanced microbiology.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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