Roberto Kolter

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Roberto Kolter
Known forbiofilms
Scientific career
FieldsMicrobiology Molecular Genetics
InstitutionsHarvard Medical School

Roberto Kolter is past president of the American Society for Microbiology,[1] an author, and Professor Emeritus of microbiology at Harvard Medical School.[2] Kolter has been at Harvard Medical School since 1983 and has been Co-director of Harvard's university-wide Microbial Sciences Initiative since 2003.[3] In 2016, Kolter became co-blogger (with Moselio Schaechter) of the popular microbiology blog, Small Things Considered.[4] He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Academy of Microbiology.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Kolter was born and raised in Guatemala and received his bachelor's degree from Carnegie Mellon University. He then obtained his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego and completed post-doctoral training at Stanford University.


During the 35-year term of the Kolter Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, more than 120 graduate student and postdoc trainees have explored an eclectic mix of topics gravitating around the study of microbes.[6] In the 1990s, Kolter's research group was among the first to study the genetics of bacteria adhered to surfaces, living within communities called biofilms,[7] and to consider biofilms as developmental and multicellular forms of microbes.[8][9][10] The lab has discovered basic communication pathways underpinning biofilm development[11] and characterized materials within the extracellular matrix of biofilms using model bacterial species like Pseudomonas aeruginosa[12][13] and Bacillus subtilis.[14][15][16][17] Kolter's lab also published early studies of cellular differentiation and division of labor in the context of multicellular microbial communities.[18][19][20] In addition to biofilm biology, his group has done extensive work on bacterial physiology, intra and interspecies communication, microbial evolution, microbiome ecology,[21][22] and bioactive compound discovery.[23]

Kolter has co-authored over 240 research and other scholarly articles which have been cited over 42,000 times in total.[24] Some of his major scientific contributions are listed below.

Regulation of DNA replication[edit]

As a graduate student, Kolter's research provided early evidence for what was called the "replicon hypothesis," proposed by Jacob, Brenner and Cuzin in 1962.[25] His work defined an origin of DNA replication that led to the development of many suicide cloning vectors still in use today.

Peptide antibiotic biosynthesis[edit]

As a faculty member at Harvard Medical school in the 1980s, Kolter's research group made use of Escherichia coli as a model organism for understanding the molecular genetics of antibiotic biosynthesis. During the course of this work the group was among the first to characterize ABC transporters, today known to be one of the most important membrane protein systems that move molecules across the cell membrane.

Physiology and evolution during stationary phase[edit]

In the late 1980s, Kolter's research group became interested in bacteria living in the stationary phase of the growth cycle, a state more like the natural conditions that bacteria experience in environments outside of the laboratory. The group discovered regulatory systems exclusive to cells in this non-growing state and found that mutants with greater fitness in stationary phase evolved and rapidly took over the cultures. This was one of the first examples of evolution occurring in the laboratory, or the now popular field of experimental evolution.

Bacterial biofilms[edit]

In the 1990s, Kolter's group became interested in the genetic pathways of surface-associated communities of bacteria called biofilms. Before then, biofilms had been discovered and were studied in the context of biofouling and in engineering solutions to prevent biofouling,[26][27][28][29] but the genetics of biofilm formation was unexplored and most microbiologists did not view biofilm formation as a physiological process of bacterial cells.[30][31] Due to work in the Kolter Lab and many other labs, microbial biofilms have since become a major field of microbiology, recognized for their importance as a predominant lifestyle of microbes in nature, of particular relevance in medicine, since many pathogenic bacteria rely on the biofilm state during infection.[32][33]

Microbial intraspecies interactions, cell differentiation & division of labor[edit]

Another body of research stemmed from work on biofilms in the Kolter group in collaboration with the laboratory of Richard Losick: the discovery that subpopulations of different functional cell types develop within single-species biofilms of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis. Some cells were found to express genes for motility, others for sporulation, cannibalism, surfactant production or the secretion of extracellular matrix.[19] Some cell types were found localized in clusters in different physical locations and time points during biofilm development.[18] Another study from the group in 2015 showed that collective behaviors like group migration across a surface can emerge due to interactions between multiple cell types.[20]

Microbial interspecies interactions[edit]

Much of Kolter's recent work has focused on interactions between several species in mixed communities, as they typically exist in natural environments. This work has produced several influential studies of the emergent properties and social behaviors of microbes while interacting with other species.


  • Germ Stories by Arthur Kornberg, 2007 (provided photography) ISBN 1891389513
  • March of the Microbes by John Ingraham (authored a foreword) ISBN 0674064097
  • Microbes and Evolution:The World Darwin Never Saw, 2012, co-edited with Stanley Maloy, American Society of Microbiology Press, ISBN 1891389513
  • Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World, 2017, coauthored with Scott Chimileski, Harvard University Press, ISBN 067497591X

Communication of microbiology to the public[edit]

Kolter is an advocate and participant in the communication of microbial science to non-scientific audiences. Kolter helps organize a lecture in Cambridge, Massachusetts open to the public each year through the Harvard Microbial Sciences Initiative, on topics of general relevance, such as the microbes that make foods like cheese and beverages like sake and wine.[34] The Kolter Lab is also leading the development of two exhibitions at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in 2017,[35] World in a Drop: Photographic Explorations of Microbial Life, opening in August 2017 and Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight, opening in February 2018.

Teaching and editing[edit]

Kolter has a long record of teaching at Harvard and at international summer courses. At Harvard he teaches Biofilm Dynamics and is developing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with HarvardX. He is a regular instructor at the Microbial Diversity Course in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the EMBO-FEBES summer microbiology course in Spetses, Greece and the John Innes/Rudjer Bošković Summer Schools in Applied Molecular Microbiology in Dubrovnik, Croatia. In 2000, he received the ASM International Professorship Award.

Kolter has been the cover editor of the Journal of Bacteriology since 1999,[36] has served as a member of the Board of Reviewing Editors for Science Magazine, mBio, and eLife.[37]


  1. ^ "Presidents of the Society (1899-present)". Retrieved 2017-07-24.
  2. ^ "Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology | Faculty | Roberto Kolter, Ph.D." Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  3. ^ "The Undiscovered Planet". Harvard Magazine. 2007-11-01. Retrieved 2017-07-22.
  4. ^ "Announcement". Small Things Considered. Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  5. ^ "AAAS Members Elected as Fellows". AAAS - The World's Largest General Scientific Society. 2011-01-11. Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  6. ^ "Kolter Lab | Unearthing the Secrets of the Microbial World | Harvard Medical School". Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  7. ^ "Signaling and Quorum Sensing".
  8. ^ Aguilar, Claudio; Vlamakis, Hera; Losick, Richard; Kolter, Roberto (December 2007). "Thinking about Bacillus subtilis as a multicellular organism". Current Opinion in Microbiology. 10 (6): 638–643. doi:10.1016/j.mib.2007.09.006. ISSN 1369-5274. PMC 2174258. PMID 17977783.
  9. ^ O'Toole, G.; Kaplan, H. B.; Kolter, R. (2000). "Biofilm formation as microbial development". Annual Review of Microbiology. 54: 49–79. doi:10.1146/annurev.micro.54.1.49. ISSN 0066-4227. PMID 11018124.
  10. ^ Watnick, Paula; Kolter, Roberto (2000-05-15). "Biofilm, City of Microbes". Journal of Bacteriology. 182 (10): 2675–2679. doi:10.1128/JB.182.10.2675-2679.2000. ISSN 0021-9193. PMC 101960. PMID 10781532.
  11. ^ Kearns, Daniel B.; Chu, Frances; Branda, Steven S.; Kolter, Roberto; Losick, Richard (February 2005). "A master regulator for biofilm formation by Bacillus subtilis". Molecular Microbiology. 55 (3): 739–749. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2958.2004.04440.x. ISSN 0950-382X. PMID 15661000.
  12. ^ O'Toole, G. A.; Kolter, R. (October 1998). "Flagellar and twitching motility are necessary for Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilm development". Molecular Microbiology. 30 (2): 295–304. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2958.1998.01062.x. ISSN 0950-382X. PMID 9791175.
  13. ^ Sakuragi, Yumiko; Kolter, Roberto (July 2007). "Quorum-sensing regulation of the biofilm matrix genes (pel) of Pseudomonas aeruginosa". Journal of Bacteriology. 189 (14): 5383–5386. doi:10.1128/JB.00137-07. ISSN 0021-9193. PMC 1951888. PMID 17496081.
  14. ^ Branda, Steven S.; González-Pastor, José Eduardo; Dervyn, Etienne; Ehrlich, S. Dusko; Losick, Richard; Kolter, Roberto (June 2004). "Genes involved in formation of structured multicellular communities by Bacillus subtilis". Journal of Bacteriology. 186 (12): 3970–3979. doi:10.1128/JB.186.12.3970-3979.2004. ISSN 0021-9193. PMC 419949. PMID 15175311.
  15. ^ Branda, Steven S.; Chu, Frances; Kearns, Daniel B.; Losick, Richard; Kolter, Roberto (February 2006). "A major protein component of the Bacillus subtilis biofilm matrix". Molecular Microbiology. 59 (4): 1229–1238. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2958.2005.05020.x. ISSN 0950-382X. PMID 16430696.
  16. ^ Romero, Diego; Aguilar, Claudio; Losick, Richard; Kolter, Roberto (2010-02-02). "Amyloid fibers provide structural integrity to Bacillus subtilis biofilms". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (5): 2230–2234. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910560107. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 2836674. PMID 20080671.
  17. ^ Science News, Dec. 22, 2008
  18. ^ a b Vlamakis, Hera; Aguilar, Claudio; Losick, Richard; Kolter, Roberto (2008-04-01). "Control of cell fate by the formation of an architecturally complex bacterial community". Genes & Development. 22 (7): 945–953. doi:10.1101/gad.1645008. ISSN 0890-9369. PMC 2279205. PMID 18381896.
  19. ^ a b Lopez, Daniel; Vlamakis, Hera; Kolter, Roberto (January 2009). "Generation of multiple cell types in Bacillus subtilis". FEMS Microbiology Reviews. 33 (1): 152–163. doi:10.1111/j.1574-6976.2008.00148.x. ISSN 0168-6445. PMID 19054118.
  20. ^ a b van Gestel, Jordi; Vlamakis, Hera; Kolter, Roberto (2015-04-20). "From Cell Differentiation to Cell Collectives: Bacillus subtilis Uses Division of Labor to Migrate". PLoS Biology. 13 (4): e1002141. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002141. ISSN 1544-9173. PMC 4403855. PMID 25894589.
  21. ^ Lemon, Katherine P.; Klepac-Ceraj, Vanja; Schiffer, Hilary K.; Brodie, Eoin L.; Lynch, Susan V.; Kolter, Roberto (2010-06-22). "Comparative Analyses of the Bacterial Microbiota of the Human Nostril and Oropharynx". mBio. 1 (3). doi:10.1128/mBio.00129-10. ISSN 2150-7511. PMC 2925076. PMID 20802827.
  22. ^ Niu, Ben; Paulson, Joseph Nathaniel; Zheng, Xiaoqi; Kolter, Roberto (2017-03-21). "Simplified and representative bacterial community of maize roots". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 114 (12): E2450–E2459. doi:10.1073/pnas.1616148114. ISSN 1091-6490. PMC 5373366. PMID 28275097.
  23. ^ "The Kolter Lab | Roberto Kolter". Retrieved 2017-07-22.
  24. ^ pubmeddev. "Kolter R - PubMed - NCBI". Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  25. ^ Jacob, François; Brenner, Sydney; Cuzin, François (1963-01-01). "On the Regulation of DNA Replication in Bacteria". Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology. 28: 329–348. doi:10.1101/SQB.1963.028.01.048. ISSN 0091-7451.
  26. ^ Henrici, Arthur T. (1933-03-01). "Studies of Freshwater Bacteria I. A Direct Microscopic Technique". Journal of Bacteriology. 25 (3): 277–287. ISSN 0021-9193. PMC 533461. PMID 16559616.
  27. ^ Zobell, Claude E. (1943). "The Effect of Solid Surfaces upon Bacterial Activity1". Journal of Bacteriology. 46 (1): 39–56. ISSN 0021-9193. PMC 373789. PMID 16560677.
  28. ^ Geesey, G. G.; Richardson, W. T.; Yeomans, H. G.; Irvin, R. T.; Costerton, J. W. (December 1977). "Microscopic examination of natural sessile bacterial populations from an alpine stream". Canadian Journal of Microbiology. 23 (12): 1733–1736. doi:10.1139/m77-249. ISSN 0008-4166. PMID 340020.
  29. ^ O'Toole, George A. (2016-01-01). "Classic Spotlight: Before They Were Biofilms". Journal of Bacteriology. 198 (1): 5–5. doi:10.1128/JB.00593-15. ISSN 0021-9193. PMC 4686204. PMID 26668270.
  30. ^ Kolter, Roberto (March 2010). "Biofilms in lab and nature: a molecular geneticist's voyage to microbial ecology". International Microbiology: The Official Journal of the Spanish Society for Microbiology. 13 (1): 1–7. doi:10.2436/20.1501.01.105. ISSN 1618-1905. PMID 20890834.
  31. ^ Kolter, Roberto (2007-05-28). "Biology of Microbial Communities - Interview". Journal of Visualized Experiments (4): 205. doi:10.3791/205. ISSN 1940-087X. PMC 2556159. PMID 18979009.
  32. ^ Hall-Stoodley, Luanne; Costerton, J. William; Stoodley, Paul (February 2004). "Bacterial biofilms: from the natural environment to infectious diseases". Nature Reviews. Microbiology. 2 (2): 95–108. doi:10.1038/nrmicro821. ISSN 1740-1526. PMID 15040259.
  33. ^ López, Daniel; Vlamakis, Hera; Kolter, Roberto (2010). "Biofilms". Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology. 2 (7): a000398. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a000398. ISSN 1943-0264. PMC 2890205. PMID 20519345.
  34. ^ "Appreciating Wine and the Microbes that Make it. Harvard Microbial Sciences Initiative" (PDF).
  35. ^ Chimileski, Scott. "Bringing the Microbial World into our Natural History Museums". Small Things Considered.
  36. ^ "Journal of Bacteriology, Editorial Board". Retrieved 2017-07-22.
  37. ^ "mBio Roberto Kolter professional profile". Retrieved 2017-07-22.

External links[edit]