Prof. Olaf Schneewind, one of the world’s leading authorities on the pathogenic bacteria that cause human disease, died May 26 after a long battle with cancer. He was 57 years old.
The Louis Block Professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Chicago, Schneewind was a renowned expert on the pathogens Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Yersinia pestis (the black plague)—and the mechanisms and strategies that enable them. Schneewind’s laboratory produced more than 250 peer-reviewed publications on the topic.
He had been working for 15 years on a vaccine that could neutralize the scourge of Staphylococcus aureus, including antibiotic-resistant strains. He often reminded students and colleagues, “Staphylococcus aureus is the infectious disease agent that causes the most morbidity and mortality in the 21st century in the United States.”
Schneewind was highly respected by his colleagues in the United States and abroad.
“I admired and respected the quality of his science as well as the practical, honest and straightforward way in which he approached problems,” said Kenneth Polonsky, dean of the Biological Sciences Division at the University of Chicago. “His outstanding scientific discoveries leave a significant impact on the field.”
One of Schneewind’s major accomplishments was his central role in the discovery of bacterial sortases. These enzymes help assemble proteins in specific bacteria and anchor these surface proteins to the cell wall. Sortases enable bacteria to adhere to other bacterial or animal cells. Without sortases and their surface protein substrates, bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus cannot cause disease or interact with their environment.
The activity of the sortase enzyme was discovered in the early 1990s by Schneewind and coworkers before the gene coding for the enzyme was identified. By understanding sortase activity, Schneewind and colleagues (including his scientific collaborator and wife, Prof. Dominique Missiakas) were able to identify the surface proteins of other bacterial pathogens based on genome sequences and to study these molecules for their contributions to disease establishment as well as for vaccine development. These insights allowed the team to learn how these bacteria evade detection by the immune system.