Polz, a microbiologist whose research explores the relationships between structure and function in microbial communities in the wild, is the first ecologist to be selected in the 77-year history of the award, which rewards fundamental research in microbiology or immunology by a scientist not yet 45 years old. Polz will receive the award and give the Eli Lilly Award Lecture during the ASM’s 113th General Meeting to be held in Denver in May.
Polz received a master’s of science in zoology in 1991 from the University of Vienna and PhD from Harvard University in 1997. The next year, he joined the faculty of MIT, where he teaches environmental microbiology at the undergraduate and graduate levels. His research is focused on the evolutionary ecology of microbes in the wild and combines environmental observations with genomics and molecular genetics.
“Polz’s lab, thanks to his own scientific breadth, is the most well-rounded center of research I know, using molecular ecology, chemistry, molecular genetics, population genetic theory, genomics and phylogenomics all with proficiency and imagination,” said Professor Emeritus W. Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University.
Recent work by Polz showed for the first time that individual marine microbes exhibit social cooperation by producing and using antibiotics not solely for selfish intentions, but for the good of the micro-population. This is the first time that this type of social behavior has been observed in natural populations of bacteria, and the findings open new lines of inquiry into the social structure and interactions in microbial communities in their natural environment.
“Polz has made fundamental contributions to the technology and theory necessary to advance understanding of the structure and function of natural microbial communities,” said Professor David Stahl of the University of Washington. “While most environmental microbiologists continue to explore and map microbial diversity in very broad strokes, seeking to identify novel lineages and map gene presence/absence patterns, Martin is contributing to a framework that should advance structure-function relationships.”
In addition to his body of work, Polz has contributed to the scientific community through service. He is an editor for Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews and Environmental Microbiology, and serves on the editorial board of BMC Microbiome. He currently serves on the Bigelow Marine Lab CCMP advisory board and has been active in ASM advocacy activities. He is a member of the MIT Center for Environmental Health, the Earth Systems Initiative and the Systems Biology Initiative. He is also on the MIT Radiation Safety Committee, the Microbiology Graduate Committee, and is a member of the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. He is also a sought-after lecturer. In 2012, Polz was elected as a Fellow into the American Academy of Microbiology.