Juan S. Bonifacino to present 2022 Keith Porter Lecture

Juan S. Bonifacino

Juan Salvador Bonifacino will present the Keith Porter Lecture at Cell Bio 2022 in Washington, DC. Bonifacino is the NIH Distinguished Investigator and Associate Scientific Director of the Neurosciences and Cellular and Structural Biology Division at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institutes of Health.

ASCB awards the Keith Porter lectureship to an outstanding and innovative leader at the forefront of cell biology, actively contributing fundamental new knowledge to our understanding of cell biology. Bonifacino is widely known for his discoveries regarding intracellular protein sorting and organelle transport.

“A main focus of our current research is how defects in protein and organelle transport cause axonal pathology and neurodevelopmental disorders,” Bonifacino said. His talk will be “How lysosome dynamics support axonal health and neurodevelopment.”

While still a postdoctoral trainee in the laboratory of Richard D. Klausner at the NICHD, Bonifacino helped characterize endoplasmic reticulum-associated degradation (ERAD). This work, done in collaboration with Jennifer-Lippincott-Schwartz, who was also a postdoc at the time, laid the foundations for some of Bonifacino’s future work, unraveling the molecular mechanisms (and dysfunctions) of protein and organelle transport and their impact on disease. Lippincott-Schwartz, now a Senior Group Leader at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute lauded Bonifacino for his “incredible citizenship as a scientist.”

“He gives freely of his time to benefit the scientific community and is incredibly kind and gracious to everyone. A phenomenal mentor to dozens of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the NIH, he has shown strong leadership both at his home institute and in the field of membrane trafficking,” Lippincott-Schwartz wrote.

In her nomination letter, Mary Dasso, a Senior Investigator in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the NICHD, elaborated further on his contributions to understanding rare protein trafficking-related disorders. Dasso wrote, “In collaboration with William Gahl, Juan’s group discovered that mutations in the AP-3 complex cause the Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome type 2, the first known genetic disorder caused by a defect in a coat protein (i.e., a ‘coatopathy’). Since this initial discovery, Juan’s group has uncovered the mechanistic bases of several protein trafficking disorders, including hereditary spastic paraplegias, pontocerebellar hypoplasias, and other neurodevelopmental disorders. In more recent collaborative studies, Juan’s group has gone a step further to help develop therapies for some of these disorders (e.g., the hereditary spastic paraplegia SPG50). Currently, Juan leads a vibrant research program that bridges basic and translational research to advance scientific knowledge in cell biology and therapeutic applications for neurodevelopmental disease.”

When informed that he was the 2022 Porter lecturer, Bonifacino remarked, “I am beyond excited that the work of my lab is being recognized with this award. Keith Porter is a mythical figure in our field, having not only performed the first electron microscopy of a cell but also discovered the endoplasmic reticulum, coated vesicles, and microtubules, fundamental elements of much of our work.”

Pietro De Camilli, the John Klingenstein Professor of Neuroscience & Professor of Cell Biology at Yale University School of Medicine praised the high quality of Bonifacino’s work and his tenacity as an investigator.

“Juan’s work is consistently outstanding, elegant, and complete,” De Camilli wrote. “When he becomes interested in a new topic—and he has tackled many new topics in his career—he approaches it systematically (imaging, biochemistry, genetics, structural studies) and rapidly becomes the leader in the field. His scientific achievements have been impressive, and he is a great citizen of the cell biology community. Importantly and relevant to this award, Juan is an outstanding speaker, and his lectures set an example for clarity as well as rigor and quality of the data presented.”

Bonifacino earned his PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1981. Between 1983 and 1991, he completed his postdoctoral training with Klausner. 

Since reading an article by Jon Singer and Garth Nicolson describing the fluid mosaic model of cell membranes as an undergraduate student (1972), I have been fascinated by the biology of membrane proteins,” Bonifacino said. “Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to pursue this interest by studying the structure, interactions, turnover, and functions of membrane proteins in the context of cell and organismal physiology. All this has been possible with the support of the NIH, my scientific home from my postdoctoral years to the present.”

Along with his scientific endeavors, Bonifacino devotes efforts to expand diversity, equity, and inclusion in the scientific workforce.

“I am a fervent believer in the value of diversity in the workplace,” he said. “In the scientific environment, we are fortunate to have people from all over the world working in our labs. However, much more needs to be done to increase access to scientific careers for people from underrepresented groups. We must increase recruitment at entry-level positions and actively mentor and support them, eliminating biases and helping them achieve the highest levels of recognition and positions of leadership. Promoting diversity is a matter of social justice and a practical policy to expand the pool of talented people engaged in scientific research.”

Bonifacino practices this philosophy through membership in the NIH Equity Committee and the NIH Distinguished Scholars Program (DSP). Both entities seek to reduce the barriers to the recruitment and success of principal investigators from groups underrepresented in biomedical research.  

ASCB first wrote a member profile on Bonifacino in 2002. His initial ASCB meeting experience (Boston, 1991) yielded a funny story that he enjoys retelling. 

“While I was still a postdoc, I gave a talk at the opening plenary symposium on protein degradation in place of my postdoctoral mentor Rick Klausner, who had fallen ill the night before. A latecomer to the symposium was heard saying: I didn’t know Rick Klausner spoke with an accent!” Bonifacino said. 

Since then, Bonifacino has remained involved in various aspects of ASCB, from being an Associate Editor of Molecular Biology of the Cell to working on the Nominating Committee and ASCB Council. ASCB inducted him as an ASCB Fellow in 2018. 

Beverly Wendland remarked that Bonifacino exemplifies the spirit of the Keith Porter Award. Wendland, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Washington University in St. Louis wrote, “In my career, I have seen investigators who either rest on their laurels or go deeper and deeper down an ever-focusing rabbit hole. (Juan) is the exact opposite of that. He continually strives for the next exciting insight, perspective, or discovery. He stretches out from his current questions to the next level of questions and applies consistent creativity to find new biology and interpret new data in a way that uncovers new paradigms. These are characteristics that Keith Porter embodied; I cannot imagine a more worthy and appropriate person than Juan Bonifacino to reflect those characteristics and to properly represent Keith Porter’s legacy.”

Bonifacino maintains an active presence on Twitter, readily sharing his research and the work of his friends and colleagues. He remarks that he loves traveling and getting to know other countries, their people, their cultures, and their art.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I have not been able to travel for the past two and a half years,” Bonifacino said. “Instead, I have been listening to a lot of music. I have eclectic tastes, but my favorite kind is classical music. I have particularly enjoyed discovering the works of lesser-known composers. I find it amazing that these composers can reach out to us from the past and still move and delight us with their art.” 

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.