|June 18, 2012
J.W. Costerton (1934-2012) – Obituary
The scientific world has lost a leading Canadian microbiologist
J.W. (Bill) Costerton passed away peacefully in Kamloops BC, Canada, on Saturday May 12, 2012, due to complications from pancreatic cancer. He was surrounded by his loving and harmonious family. The scientific world has lost a foremost microbiologist. Bill began leading a team more than four decades ago examining how bacteria cling onto rocks, soil surfaces, medical prostheses and catheters, as well as how bacteria interact with oil in tar sands and reservoirs, and colonize human tissues. Needless to say, Bill broke new ground and made seminal contributions to diverse research fields, including the microbiology of cystic fibrosis and microbial enhanced oil recovery. A visionary of interdisciplinary collaboration, Bill brought together microbiologists, biologists, physicians, veterinarians and engineers to contribute to research a common problem. It was Bill who developed the concept and first coined the term “biofilm” to describe the ubiquitous bacterial communities attached to surfaces, both inert and biological. Indeed, biofilms have developed into an independent research field and are now even familiar to the general public. It is most appropriate to say that Bill’s work has changed the world of microbiology and contributed to human health.
Bill Costerton was born on July 21, 1934 in Vernon BC in western Canada. After graduating from Vernon High School, he went on to receive degrees from the University of British Columbia (BA and MA in Bacteriology) and the University of Western Ontario (PhD, under the mentorship of Professor R.G.E. (Bob) Murray, a former ASM and CSM President, respectively). He and his wife, Vivian, then moved to India where they remained for several years working as medical missionaries. During this time Bill also served as Dean and taught at Baring Union College in the Punjab region. In 1964, the Costerton’s moved to the UK, where Bill received a Nuffield Scholarship and became a research fellow in Botany at the University of Cambridge in the laboratory of Enid Macrobbie. In 1968, Bill and Vivian returned to Canada where he accepted a research appointment in the laboratory of Bob MacLeod at MacDonald College of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. In 1970, Bill accepted a faculty appointment at the University of Calgary, where he would remain for the next 23 years. During his tenure in Calgary, Bill rose through the ranks to full professor and held two prestigious research chairs. More importantly, it was in Calgary where he began to develop the concept of microbial biofilms. In 1993, Bill moved to the USA and succeeded William Characklis as the director of the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University, Bozeman MT. Bill “retired” from the Center for Biofilm Engineering in 2004 and moved to the University of Southern California (USC) to establish a Center for Biofilms in the USC Faculty of Dentistry. In 2008, Bill again “retired”, this time from USC and moved to Pittsburgh PA to become the Director of Biofilm Research, Center for Genomic Sciences, at the Allegheny-Singer Research Institute, a position he held until his death.
Bill is best known for raising our awareness of biofilms and their importance in all environments. Indeed, many scientists regard him as the “Father of Biofilms Research”. As a testament of his impact in this field, the new Biofilm Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark, will be named in his honour. Most of the observations that Bill’s group has made arose from the examination of microorganisms in situ rather than relying exclusively on laboratory cultures. His electron micrographs of samples collected from alpine streams, cystic fibrosis sputum, water heat-exchangers, industrial pipes, urinary catheters and other indwelling medical devices, showed bacteria to be surface-attached, forming micro-colonies encased in an extracellular matrix. The relevance of this mode of growth became apparent during the mid-1980’s when Bill’s laboratory showed that biofilm growth of Pseudomonas aeruginosa conferred considerable resistance to the antibiotic tobramycin, when compared to that of planktonic P. aeruginosa cells. Subsequently, biofilm-grown bacteria were shown to resist many aspects of immune-mediated killing during infection. At the Center for Biofilm Engineering in Bozeman, MT, Bill and his colleagues began to discern the complex structure and physiology of biofilms using laser-scanning confocal microscopy (LSCM) and highly sensitive microelectrodes to discern the complex structure and physiology of biofilms. Bill appeared before the U.S. Senate to educate decision makers about the importance of studying biofilms as fundamental science. Consequently, in the late 1990’s, the US National Institutes of Health announced a program to encourage and fund biofilm research. This initiative has had tremendous impact and attracted numerous outstanding investigators, both young and established, to this field of research. Many of the original observations reported by Bill and his colleagues in the 1980’s and 1990’s are now being explained using modern genetic and biochemical methodologies including metagenomics, transcriptomics and proteomics.
Bill Costerton has also been an exemplary teacher and mentor. He educated at all levels, the general public, the university community and the scientific community. He personally trained over 50 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. He encouraged students and postdocs to work independently, to think of larger scientific concepts (the “Big Picture”), and most importantly, to enjoy the scientific journey. Well-known to the international scientific community, he tirelessly promoted good ideas and encouraged young investigators. Bill was a most prolific writer; publishing well over 700 peer-reviewed papers during his career. He was also known as an exceptionally talented speaker. In addition to the two University of Calgary teaching awards, initiated via undergraduate student nominations, Bill has also received many well-deserved accolades for his scientific achievements, including the CSM Award, an Honorary CSM membership, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the Proctor and Gamble Award from the American Society for Microbiology, and an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Guelph.
“A Life Well Lived” is the theme chosen by his family to celebrate Dr. J.W. Costerton at the memorial service held in Kamloops on May 22, 2012. The date may fade from our memory, but Bill’s boundless energy, humour and generosity will remain. We extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to Bill’s wife, Vivian, and his children Diane, Bob, Sheila, and Nancy, along with their families.
Joseph S. Lam, PhD, Professor, Canada Research Chair in Cystic Fibrosis and Microbial Glycobiology, Fellow of the American Society of Microbiology, Dept. Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
Lori L. Graham, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Biology, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, NS, Canada
Robert J.C. McLean, PhD, University Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX