Montana State University

Costerton retires from MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering

April 27, 2004 -- by Jean Arthur, MSU News Service


Bill Costerton, director of Montana State University's Center for Biofilm Engineering retires this spring to initiate a new biofilm center. (Photo by Stephen Hunts, MSU News.)   High-Res Available

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Bozeman -- Not many Montanans speak Hindustani. William (Bill) Costerton does. He learned the language during a four-year stint as an Episcopal missionary in India. He speaks other languages too, English and French, and as director of Montana State University's Center for Biofilm Engineering, has helped create the vernacular of the burgeoning field of bio-engineering.

Soon, Costerton, 69, promises, he may be learning "Valley-girl speak" as part of his retirement to Southern California. In Costerton's lexicon, "retirement" is defined as slowing down long enough to establish a new biofilm center at the University of Southern California. The new research center will focus on dental and medical biofilms that have been shown to cause 65 percent of bacterial infections treated by physicians in the developed world, including middle ear and sinus infections.

Costerton arrived at MSU in 1993 from Calgary, Alberta, where he held a research chair in microbiology at the University of Calgary. He took over as director of MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering after the center's founder, W.G. Characklis, died in 1992.

Costerton's cutting-edge research unveils mysteries of microbial slime that forms on most wet surfaces. This slime can be an industrial problem as it can disrupt systems ranging from oil pipelines to municipal water supplies and cause problems ranging from simple fouling to severe corrosion.

"We are changing what people think about infections from an engineering base," says Costerton, who coined the term "biofilm" to refer to highly structured communities of bacterial cells living cooperatively. "We now determine how well antibiotics diffuse into biofilms."

He explains that biofilm is bacteria that can adhere to surfaces in wet environments and begin to excrete a slimy, glue-like substance that can anchor the resultant biofilm community to all kinds of material -- metals, plastics, soil particles, medical implant materials and tissue. He uses unsavory images to explain biofilm -- plaque that forms on teeth and causes tooth decay and gunk that clogs drains.

One of Costerton's scientific breakthroughs came in 1999 when he discovered that biofilms damage tissues primarily by triggering inflammation. He suggested an innovative approach to treating chronic diseases by using immune modulators instead of antibiotics. He says that the antibiotics that have been designed to kill free-floating bacterial cells work poorly against cells growing in slime-enclosed biofilms.

The biofilm theory has become widely accepted in the last decade, according to Costerton. MSU's is the largest and most active biofilm center in the world. The center allows multidisciplinary research teams to find solutions for industrially relevant biofilm problems and potential uses for beneficial biofilms in waste disposal and bioremediation.

With Costerton at the helm, the center has increased the number of undergraduates working in the center's labs to 40 students. Center researchers will use a recent $3.1-million grant to explore biofilms as potential traps for biological agents that could be used by terrorists.

Costerton's biofilm team has discovered that bacteria in biofilms "talk to each other" by means of simple chemical signals. This discovery, published in "Science" in 1998, may allow scientists and doctors to persuade infecting bacteria to turn off toxin production or even abandon their biofilms and leave the body.

"So the strategy has changed from killing the bacteria, which creates an antibiotic resistance, to instead getting the bacteria to stop making toxins or to leave their protected slime caves and take their chances with the body's defenses," Costerton says.

As Costerton deciphers the language of bacteria, he also leaves a legacy as one of the most published researchers in the world. He has published 600 papers in refereed scientific journals. He is among the International Science Index's "ISI highly quoted scientist," a list of the most highly influential scientists and scholars worldwide.

"It's really impossible to overstate Bill's contributions to the field of biofilm microbiology" says Phil Stewart, engineering professor and deputy director and research coordinator at MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering. "Bill helped build the center to the internationally recognized leader in the biofilm field that it is today. And he made it fun every day. He is a naturally generous and optimistic man."

Costerton is a skier, climber, demon racketball player and a bit of a Pied Piper of slime. He just returned from a round-the-globe lecture tour, with stops in Chile, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. He spoke--in English--on biofilms and all the problems they cause.

Costerton will continue to be involved in the Industrial Research section of the MSU Center for Biofilm Engineering, where he says, his loyalties will always remain.

Contact Bill Costerton 994-4770