Colwell Awarded 2017 International Prize for Biology

Mon Aug 21, 2017

Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), has been named the 2017 laureate of the International Prize for Biology for her outstanding contributions to marine microbiology, bioinformatics and the understanding and prevention of cholera.

Colwell is the 33rd recipient of this award, generally recognized as one of the most prestigious honors a natural scientist can receive. Past laureates include renowned biologists such as John B. Gurdon, Motoo Kimura, Edward O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr and Thomas Cavalier-Smith.

In awarding the prize, Japan’s Society for the Promotion of Science honored Colwell as a pioneer in the use of computational tools and DNA sequencing to identify and classify marine bacteria and other microorganisms, work that helped lay the foundation for the bioinformatics revolution.

The prize also recognizes Colwell’s life-saving contributions to the understanding and prevention of cholera, an acute diarrheal disease, caused by ingestion of water or food contaminated with Vibrio cholera, which according to the World Health Organization is responsible for approximately 1 to 4 million illnesses and 20,000 to 140,000 deaths each year.

Colwell, whose career bridges the disciplines of microbiology, ecology, infectious disease, public health and computer and satellite technology, continues to be a leader in bioinformatics, notably in understanding microbiomes and the application of this knowledge to human health and the diagnosis and treatment of disease. This includes her current work as founder and chairman of CosmosID Inc., a microbial genomics company focused on molecular diagnostics of human pathogens and antimicrobial resistance.

“It is an extraordinary honor to be named recipient of the International Prize for Biology, a very special honor for a biologist,” said Colwell. “I am deeply grateful to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for this award. I have many friends and colleagues in Japan and look forward to continuing my many collaborations with them.”

The selection committee also cited Colwell's transformational work in these areas:

- Establishing the taxonomy of vibrio bacteria, which includes Vibrio cholerae.
- Identifying a previously unknown survival strategy of dormant vibrio cells, which the committee said "has had a profound influence on microbiology and medicine.”
- Showing how climate change has expanded the habitat range of vibrios, and the occurrence of cholera.
- Helping prevent the spread of cholera in developing countries by discovering and demonstrating an effective way to use the sari, the traditional dress of women on the Indian subcontinent, as a filter to remove vibrio-carrying plankton from drinking water drawn from ponds, rivers and other surface waters.

The International Prize for Biology was instituted in April 1985 by the Committee on the International Prize for Biology. The prize, consisting of a certificate, a medal and an award of 10-million yen (more than $90,000) is given to the recipient, along with an imperial gift, a silver vase bearing the imperial crest. The award presentation ceremony and a subsequent reception in honor of Colwell will held in late 2017 at the Japanese Academy in Japan.