Heuser, Hultgren elected to National Academy of Sciences

Two Washington University scientists have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

John E. Heuser, MD, professor of cell biology and physiology, and Scott J. Hultgren, PhD, the Helen L. Stoever Professor of Molecular Microbiology and director of the Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research, are among the 72 new members and 18 foreign associates elected to the academy this year.


Heuser was recognized by the Academy for his groundbreaking discovery of the recycling of synaptic vesicles in nerve terminals. These are small compartments that secrete the chemicals that mediate the transmission of messages between nerves. This led to a general realization in cell biology that membrane recycling occurs in all cells, not just in nerves, and is an important component of all cells’ ability to take up materials from their environment and to secrete material outward.

To observe synaptic vesicle secretion from nerve cells and then study it in health and disease, Heuser also invented a “quick-freeze” machine that was copied all worldwide to capture a variety of other ultrafast biological processes other than neurotransmission. He has continued to use this invention, in conjunction with other advanced electron microscopic techniques, to provide unique and insightful 3-D views, known as “Heusergrams,” of membranes and molecules in a wide variety of biological contexts, including nerves, muscles, glands, blood, skin and bone. Heuser recently patented an update of the original machine.

Besides overseeing the electron microscopy facility he created at Washington University, Heuser has recently become the director of a new microscopy center at Kyoto University in Japan in its Institute for Cell and Material Sciences, a new government-mandated institute designed to foster international scientific collaboration in nano-molecular therapeutics and regenerative medicine.

Heuser has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After earning his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, he completed graduate studies in biophysics at University College in London. Following a postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., Heuser was on the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, before joining the School of Medicine as a professor of physiology and of biophysics.


Hultgren was recognized by the Academy for his renowned work in microbial/host interactions, the basis of all infectious disease. His research has shed much light on the basic mechanisms that determine how bacteria interact with the many different surfaces in our body, and how they get out of control and exert adverse effects in a variety of debilitating infectious diseases. He uses everything from genetics, genomics, biochemistry, structural biology and high-resolution imaging to get basic information and translates all this into studies of animal models and even studies in the clinic, especially to the bottom of how urinary tract infections are caused. Hultgren’s work is profoundly changing the way that urinary tract infections are being evaluated and is reshaping the technologies that are involved in the design of vaccines and other procedures that are used to diagnose, treat and prevent urinary tract infections.

Hultgren also directs the new Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research at the School of Medicine, which focuses on important issues like the causes of urinary tract infections and other difficulties, the infections that lead to premature delivery and vaginitis, and in general, the various important roles that microorganisms play in all the life-threatening conditions like cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative disorders and diabetes. The center is part of the university’s BioMed 21 initiative, which aims to speed the translation of discoveries in the scientific laboratory into practical new methods for diagnosing and treating disease.

Hultgren was also elected to the American Association of the Advancement of Science and in 1998 received the Eli Lilly award, the preeminent award granted in microbiology to those younger than 40. He has also been recognized as a Nobel Fellow, was awarded a Merit Grant from the National Institutes of Health and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Umeå in Sweden. His awards and honors from Washington University include the Distinguished Investigator Award, Coursemaster of the Year and Mentor of the Year from the university’s Academic Women’s Network.

Hultgren earned a doctorate in microbiology at Northwestern University and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Umeå in Sweden. He joined the university faculty in 1989 and became the director of the Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research in 2007.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.