UC Berkeley professor Jill Banfield was awarded the 2023 van Leeuwenhoek Medal from the Royal Netherlands Society for Microbiology, or the KNVM, making Banfield the first woman to receive the medal.
Banfield was awarded for “pioneering work” in genome sequencing technology that resulted in new branches being added to the “tree of life,” according to a KNVM press release.
“I certainly did not know about the nomination or expect anything of the sort,” Banfield said. “I was nominated for the work that we’ve been able to do in my lab that relates to microbial diversity and microbial community functions in the environment.”
The van Leeuwenhoek Medal was established in 1875 and is awarded every 10 to 12 years, according to the press release, which notes that the award ceremony will be held April 5.
The press release states that Banfield’s studies have bridged the gap between environmental and medical microbiology.
“Her ground-breaking work in characterizing complex microbial communities has paved the way for new and exciting discoveries, advancing our understanding of the micro world and its importance to the world around us,” said Jennifer Doudna, the founder of the Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, in a media statement.
The “well-deserved recognition” is an attestation to Banfield’s devotion to the field of microbiology, Doudna said in the statement.
Banfield began a career as an earth scientist and began to work on the intersection between earth science and microbiology in the mid 1990s after realizing the importance of microorganisms’ role in chemical processes at the Earth’s surface, Banfield said.
“I just really fell in love with biology,” Banfield said. “It was at that time that the first genome sequences were coming out for microbes. This was a revolution in science.”
One of Banfield’s most widely cited studies is a paper published in 2016 in the journal Nature Microbiology, titled “A new view of the tree of life.” The paper draws entire evolutionary lineages that were previously missing from the tree of life, Banfield noted.
Banfield was able to extract and sequence DNA from organisms that were not trackable through laboratory studies, bringing a whole new angle to microbiology that enabled further progress, Banfield said.
Banfield is interested in seeing scientists use the genomes to guide genome editing strategies, such as CRISPR, Banfield said. Currently, it is only possible to edit microbial genomes if they are growing by themselves, which some cannot do, explained Banfield, who noted that a better understanding of interactions between these organisms could further this field.
“It’s about the diversity of life on Earth,” Banfield said. “Microbes are so important in determining the function of an environment … it’s really critical to understand what microbes are there so that you can potentially manage that environment data.”