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David Bricker
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, February 11, 2008

American Society for Microbiology honors biologist Patricia Foster

Feb. 11, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Patricia Foster, an Indiana University Bloomington biologist who studies mutations in the bacterium E. coli, has been elected a fellow of the American Society for Microbiology.

Patricia Foster

Professor of Biology Patricia Foster

Print-Quality Photo

A committee of her peers chose Foster for her "excellence, originality and creativity in the microbiological sciences." An event in her honor will take place June 4 as part of the society's annual meeting in Boston.

When stressed, many bacteria are known to experience increased rates of mutation. Foster's research seeks to answer not merely how this mutation rate goes up, but also why it goes up -- in the big-picture sense. Mutations are generally a bad thing for organisms, since they usually result in defects. But when a bacterium is running out of food or finds itself in inhospitable circumstances, many biologists theorize more mutations can provide the bacteria with possible escapes from oblivion. The phenomenon is called adaptive mutation. Over the last 20 years, Foster has made significant contributions to the literature that clarify which molecular agents are involved in ratcheting up adaptive mutation rates and how these agents act.

"Dr. Foster's groundbreaking work challenged the notion that all mutations occur through random, chance events," said Jeffrey Palmer, chair of IU Bloomington Biology. "Dr. Foster's results were the first to examine the mechanisms by which mutations occur when bacteria are starved and rarely dividing. Her work has stimulated mutational studies in many labs and on a broad range of organisms, from bacteria to human cells."

Mutation in E. coli, Foster's model organism of choice, is also of growing interest to public health officials. Most E. coli strains are entirely benign. The average human being is host to tens of thousands of cells, which neither cause nor aid illness. The periodic tainting of American consumer meats by pathogenic strains of E. coli, however, causes considerable damage. Understanding the biochemical, molecular biological and genetic mechanisms that lead to pathogenesis could help ranchers and other meat producers reduce the likelihood of such epidemics.

To speak with Foster, please contact David Bricker, University Communications, at 812-856-9035 or