Our department has a long and distinguished history from its founding in the early 1960s to the present day. Our faculty, students and trainees have made major contributions to biomedical research.
The PhD Program in Molecular Microbiology, based at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences was created in 1965 as the PhD Program in Molecular Biology. Now an interdepartmental program and renamed Molecular Microbiology, the program has granted more than 175 PhD degrees and 10 MS degrees as of December 2011. The graduate program has been funded by two training grants from the NIH.
In 2010, a new track in infectious disease (MERGE-ID) was created in collaboration with the Graduate Program in Immunology and was funded by a training grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In a recent survey of graduate education by the National Research Council, the Tufts Microbiology program was ranked among the very best in the country.
Founding Our Department
In 1962, Tufts University School of Medicine recruited James T (Ted) Park to establish a Department of Microbiology and to serve as the first Chair. Park, a Big Ten collegiate tennis champion, was already well-known as a distinguished microbial biochemist for his discovery that the bacterial cell wall is synthesized from nucleotide-linked precursors (then called Park nucleotides and now known as nucleotide sugars) and for his demonstration that penicillin kills bacteria by inhibiting their ability to synthesize the cell wall. At the outset, the department included "Rusty" Rustigian, a virologist, and Ralph Wheeler, a physician and epidemiologist.
Park recruited six additional faculty members over the course of the next six years. The new faculty members were united by common interests in bacterial genetics, bacterial physiology and biochemistry. The first to be hired was Moselio ("Elio") Schaechter, a microbial physiologist who had described the essential parameters of bacterial growth during training in the laboratory of the Danish microbiologist, Ole Maaløe. An active amateur mycologist, Schaechter would go on to author the popular book "In the Company of Mushrooms” and edit several successful textbooks and reference books in microbiology. Next, H Vasken Aposhian, a virologist, left Arthur Kornberg's group at Stanford, to join our faculty. Aposhian left in 1970 to become Department Chair at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In 1965, Edward Goldberg was induced to leave Alfred Hershey's lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to set up a lab at Tufts studying phage genetics, transcription and morphogenesis. (Goldberg retired in 2010.) Michael Malamy was recruited in 1966, after completing postdoctoral training at Princeton, with Arthur Pardee, and at the Institut Pasteur, with Jacques Monod and François Jacob, during which he studied the regulation of the lac operon. Edward Wise, a graduate of Park's lab, also joined the faculty at that time, but moved to Burroughs-Wellcome in 1972. In 1967, Andrew Wright, a mountain climber and Scottish country dancing enthusiast, moved across the river from his postdoctoral position at MIT (with Phillips Robbins) to start a new lab studying the interactions of Salmonella phages with their host cells. He became professor emeritus in 2007, but remains active in research. Rustigian and Wheeler both left Tufts in the late 1960s.
We Adopt Our Current Name
In 1968, the name of the department was changed to Molecular Biology and Microbiology to reflect our emphasis on molecular genetic approaches to microbial physiology as opposed to more traditional approaches. At that time, molecular biology was still a new science that pertained almost exclusively to bacteria and viruses. Park resigned as Chair in 1970, turning over the governance of the department to Elio Schaechter, but he maintained an active, funded research lab until 2010. Schaechter's first two appointments over the next five years increased the faculty to a small, highly cohesive group of seven who interacted well with each other. (We maintain a spirit of collegiality and governing by consensus even as the department has more than doubled in size since then.)
Schaechter's first new appointment was Abraham L ("Linc") Sonenshein, a graduate of Salvador Luria's lab at MIT and of Pierre Schaeffer's group at the Université de Paris. Arriving in 1972, Sonenshein established a research group that focused on the regulation of spore formation in Bacillus subtilis. Three years later, John M Coffin, who trained with Howard Temin in Wisconsin and with the molecular virologist Charles Weissmann in Zurich, arrived to study the molecular genetics of retroviruses. An avid cranberry farmer, Coffin spends many cold nights protecting his plants and their blossoms and fruit from frost damage. The annual cranberry harvest serves as a excuse for an autumn outing and picnic. Coffin now divides his time between research groups at Tufts and at NCI-Frederick where he founded a program to study HIV drug resistance mechanisms and continues to consult with several teams on these issues. Mark Challberg came from The Johns Hopkins University in 1978 to initiate studies on adenovirus replication, but left in 1982 to take a full-time research position at the NIH.
A Time of Transition
In the 1960's and early 1970's, government support of basic research was at a high point, but, starting in the mid-1970's, harder times appeared. This pressure, coupled with the desire to show the immediate relevance of research in response to ongoing social upheaval, induced many of our colleagues at other institutions to shift their efforts to mammalian cells. Wholesale conversions of microbiology departments were not uncommon. We held our ground, however, and were rewarded by the development of two areas of research that validated maintaining a strong presence in fundamental microbiology. The revolution created by recombinant DNA technology occurred almost simultaneously with the realization that the mysteries of bacterial pathogenesis could be unraveled using the basic tools of molecular microbiology.
Several department members began to take an active interest in microbial virulence mechanisms. Malamy took on the anaerobic pathogen, Bacteroides fragilis, as a research system and Wright began to study Haemophilus influenzae and, later, Helicobacter pylori and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Sonenshein expanded his interest in spore-formers to include Clostridium perfringens and C. difficile.
We also began to recruit new faculty members with specific interests in microbial pathogenesis. In 1979, we enticed Michael Gill, an enthusiastic wind-surfer, to move his lab from Harvard to Tufts, bringing to our department his expertise in bacterial toxins. In 1990, we suffered a major blow, both personally and professionally, when Gill died of a sudden heart attack while playing tennis.
Ralph Isberg came from Stanley Falkow's lab at Stanford in 1985 to set up a group studying pathogenesis of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis and Legionella pneumophila. Isberg is as famous among non-scientists for his construction of a backyard hockey rink as he is among scientists for his outstanding accomplishments in bacterial pathogenesis. Carol Kumamoto, who was initially recruited by the Physiology Department, moved her research unit to our department, bringing projects involving protein secretion in Escherichia coli and differentiation in the pathogenic fungus, Candida albicans. Kumamoto, a hockey enthusiast, had previously studied secretion in bacteria with Jon Beckwith at Harvard Medical School and bioenergetics in eukaryotic cells with Robert Simoni at Stanford. In 1986, Claire Moore was recruited from the MIT lab of Phil Sharp; she had invented the first system for studying mRNA 3' end processing in vitro and expanded that work to the Saccharomyces cerevisiae system. Dean Dawson, a kayaker and outdoorsman, is a yeast geneticist who trained with Jack Szostack at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dawson arrived in 1988 and set up a lab studying the mechanism and regulation of meiotic recombination and chromosome segregation. He moved to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in 2006.
Stuart Levy, a hematologist who had trained in medicine and biochemical genetics at NIH and had held a secondary appointment in Molecular Biology and Microbiology since 1971, joined our department in 1990 as a full member, bringing together his research efforts in bacterial and human drug resistance, along with his Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance.
When Schaechter retired from the Chairmanship in 1993 after 23 years, Sonenshein served as Acting Chair while a national search for a new chair was carried out. The search committee's first choice, Catherine Squires, agreed to move from Columbia University to Tufts in 1994. Squires, a well-known and highly respected microbial geneticist and biochemist, had trained at UC Davis with John Ingraham, at UC Santa Barbara with Nancy Lee, and at Stanford with Charles Yanofsky. Squires, who had a reputation as an Elvis fan, acquired a fun collection of Elvis memorabilia from folks at Tufts and elsewhere. She and her husband Craig, already owned a farm in Winters, CA where they raised goats and seed crops.
Her arrival signaled a new round of faculty hiring, leading in 1996 to the recruitment of Andrew Camilli and David Lazinski. Camilli, a pathogenic microbiologist studying Vibrio cholerae and Streptococcus pneumoniae, was a student of Daniel Portnoy at the University of Pennsylvania and a postdoctoral fellow with John Mekalanos at Harvard Medical School. Camilli, a long distance runner, ran in the Boston Marathon of 1999. Photos of his performance appeared on several giant billboards around Boston for months thereafter as part of an advertisement for athletic wear. Lazinski came from the Fox Chase Cancer Research Center, where he had begun a detailed investigation of the hepatitis delta virus with John Taylor. Lazinski left the faculty in 2005. A third new faculty member, Joan Mecsas, opened her lab in November 1999, after completing graduate training at the University of Wisconsin with Carol Gross and postdoctoral training with Stanley Falkow at Stanford Medical School. Mecsas is an expert on infection by Yersinia pseudotuberculosis and is especially interested in the pathway this bacterium takes as it makes its way through an animal’s immune and lymphatic systems.
Entering the 21st Century
In 2003, Matthew Waldor, who had been a clinician-researcher in the Division of Geographic Medicine in the Department of Medicine, joined the department as an Associate Professor and moved his Vibrio cholerae research lab into the departmental research space. Waldor moved to the Harvard-affiliated Channing Laboratory of the Brigham and Women's Hospital in 2007.
Squires' final recruitment was of Ekaterina ("Katya") Heldwein, who arrived in November 2006. She is a very talented structural biologist who trained at the Oregon Health Sciences University with Richard Brennan and at Harvard Medical School with Stephen Harrison. Heldwein's specialty is protein structure determination with an emphasis on herpesvirus entry and egress mechanisms.
Squires retired from the Chair position in January 2007 to return to her roots in California, first moving her group to Charles Yanofsky's lab at Stanford where she was a Consulting Professor for 2.5 years and then settling at the farm in Winters. Sonenshein again served as Acting Chair while a national search was conducted to find a permanent replacement. That search has culminated in the recruitment of John Leong, MD-PhD, an expert on diarrheagenic E. coli and Borrelia burgdorferi. Leong trained with Arthur Landy at Brown University and Ralph Isberg at Tufts, before taking faculty positions at Tufts-New England Medical Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He joined us with a mandate to raise the faculty census to 16 by recruiting outstanding junior and mid-level scientists. He is committed to continuing the traditions of the department in both microbial science and pathogenesis and maintaining the collegiality and spirit of cooperation that characterizes the faculty, staff and trainees.
Awards and Honors
The tenure-track faculty includes present and past members who have received particularly distinctive recognition. Coffin holds a research professorship from the American Cancer Society. Coffin and Isberg are members of the National Academy of Sciences. Isberg, Camilli and Waldor are Investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Isberg and Camilli were winners of the Eli Lilly Award of the American Society for Microbiology. Coffin, Isberg, Moore, Squires, Kumamoto, Waldor and Sonenshein have all been awarded the Zucker Prize for research excellence. Squires served as President of the American Medical School Microbiology and Immunology Chairs in 2000. Schaechter and Levy are past Presidents of the American Society for Microbiology. Levy is also a winner of the Hoechst Marion Roussel Award in antibiotic chemotherapy and the Hamao Umezawa Memorial Award from the International Society of Chemotherapy. Isberg, Camilli, Lazinski and Heldwein were designated special scholars of the Searle or Pew or other foundations. Heldwein also received an NIH Innovator Award and a Burroughs-Wellcome award in infectious disease research. Camilli, Coffin, Goldberg, Isberg, Levy, Malamy, Moore, Park, Sonenshein, Squires and Wright are Fellows of the American Academy of Microbiology. Levy, Sonenshein, Squires and Wright are Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
As important as hiring of outstanding faculty members has been to the success of the department, an equally crucial decision was made by Schaechter when he chose Verna Manni Brevard to serve as our Department Manager. She has served in this position under Schaechter, Sonenshein (twice), Squires and Leong. In addition to expertly managing the financial affairs of the department, Verna is the person most likely to be sought out by faculty, students, postdoctoral fellows and staff. Moreover, she is an incredible resource for the administration of the medical school and the university. In 2011 her accomplishments were recognized by the university with a Tufts Distinction Award.