J. William (Bill) Costerton

Microbiology and Immunology

Pioneered biofilm microbiology

Costerton became an expert in microbiology and electron microscopy after receiving degrees from UBC (BA, 1955; MA, 1956) and UWO (PhD, 1960). In 1978, when he was a University of Calgary postdoctoral student Costerton shook up the established science of microbiology with a new view of bacterial life. He and his team worked out a way to see the structure of the slimy substance that seemed to anchor bacteria to surfaces in cattle stomachs. When they took the bacteria into the lab and “purified” them, however, they became just like ordinary bacteria. It became obvious that bacteria do not act the same inside a test-tube as outside it. Natural bacterial colonies were creating their own microhabitat, sticking to surfaces and covering themselves with a slimy layer of protective molecules. Costerton named these molecules biofilms. The researchers found that biofilm bacteria were often team players, different species working in physiological co-operation. Costerton and his team have applied their knowledge to developing new technologies in areas ranging from oil production to bacteria-resistant medical devices. He holds several biological patents and is president of the Microbios company.

Sources: Canadian Who’s Who 1993; NSERC

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