International Prize for Biology
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)

International Prize for biology

Past Recipients


The Committee on the International Prize for Biology of Japan Society
for the Promotion of Science awards the 2017 International Prize for
in the field of "Marine Biology" to
Dr. Colwell, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland

  On August 7, the Committee on the International Prize for Biology (chaired by Dr. Heisuke Hironaka, Acting Chairperson of Section II, the Japan Academy) of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science decided to award the 33rd (2017) International Prize for Biology to Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland, College Park, USA.
  The field of specialization for the 33rd Prize is "Marine Biology".

NAME :  Rita Rossi Colwell
DATE OF BIRTH :  November 23, 1934
NATIONALITY :  United States of America
PRESENT POSITION :  Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

Education and Professional Positions

1961   Ph.D., University of Washington
1961-1964 Assistant Research Professor, University of Washington
1964-1966 Assistant Professor of Biology, Georgetown University
1966-1972 Associate Professor of Biology, with tenure, Georgetown University
1972-Present Professor of Microbiology, with tenure, University of Maryland
1983-1987 Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Maryland
1984-1985 President, American Society for Microbiology
1992-1994 President, International Union of Microbiological Societies
1995-1996 President, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1998-2004 Director, National Science Foundation
2004-Present Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
2004-Present Distinguished University Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health


1984 American Association of University Women Award
2000 Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences
2002 Bergey Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Bacterial Taxonomy
2004 Ocean Conservation Award, Aquarium of the Pacific
2005 “The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star,” awarded by the Emperor of Japan
2007 2006 National Medal of Science, awarded by President George W. Bush
2010 2010 Stockholm Water Prize, awarded by the King of Sweden
2014 Prize Medal, Society for General Microbiology, Liverpool, England, UK
2016 Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water, Creativity Prize, Saudi Arabia

Achievements Recognized by the Award

  In her research work over the past 60 years, Dr. Colwell has authored or co-authored more than 750 papers and 19 scholarly books. Her research area is relevant to such fields as marine bacterial taxonomy, physiology, and ecology, as well as to the relation of marine bacteria to human health. She established the taxonomy of vibrios, which include V. cholerae. She pioneered the use of DNA sequence data for classifying microorganisms, a technique well known today. She was also early to make use of numerical, polyphasic data to identify bacteria, earning high acclaim for helping to establish a foundation for today’s bioinformatics analysis.

  By employing these leading-edge techniques in studies of microorganisms, in Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the United States as well as in the open ocean and deep sea, she discovered that vibrios seemed to disappear in the winter and then reappear in summer. Her analysis of this phenomenon concluded that the bacteria actually continued to exist in winter months, but in what she defined as the viable but non-culturable (VBNC) state, meaning they could not grow in routine culture medium but were living cells. She pointed to the importance of this state, which continues to be a key and widely studied concept in microbiology today, even though many aspects of it remain to be elucidated. Noting that low temperatures seemed to be a main factor causing this VBNC state, Dr. Colwell suggested the possibility that global warming might lead to an expansion in the habitat range of vibrios. After analyzing past data over a half-century period, she and colleagues showed that in the northern Atlantic Ocean near the North American and European coasts, the expansion of the habitat of plankton to which vibrios attached themselves did in fact correspond to wider outbreaks of vibrio diseases in humans. She is highly regarded for helping to extend studies from basic natural sciences, including microbial taxonomy and ecology, to the field of medicine with its impact on human life.

  In her studies in Bangladesh and elsewhere, Dr. Colwell further discovered that by using a sari, the traditional dress of women on the Indian subcontinent, to filter water from ponds and rivers before drinking, plankton was removed from the water along with V. cholerae attached to it. After studying the relation of filtering by sari cloth to cholera occurrences in many villages of Bangladesh, she found that simply filtering drinking water in this way greatly decreased cholera cases. Such studies on the safety of drinking water have been highly significant as health and welfare projects in developing countries.

  In addition to her many papers and books, she has appealed to the necessity and importance of marine microbiology studies through such media as a documentary film, endeavoring to spread the knowledge and techniques required for this research field. She has also contributed actively to the advancement of microbiology research for addressing the problem of marine pollution, with its increasingly profound implications for human beings. On the educational front, Dr. Colwell has provided guidance to well over a hundred doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, each of whom has gone on to make outstanding contributions to their fields.

  In addition to her research work, she became the first female director of the US National Science Foundation, helping to promote science and technology. During her time in that post, she devoted her efforts to supporting women and minority researchers and to building up science education of young people responsible for the future. In addition to marine biology, she has received wide recognition for her contributions to international science and technology exchanges and development. The above and other accomplishments on behalf of science and society make Dr. Colwell a worthy recipient of the International Prize for Biology.

Representative Publications:

  1. Colwell, R.R. 1970. Polyphasic taxonomy of the genus Vibrio: numerical taxonomy of Vibrio cholerae, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, and related Vibrio species. J. Bacteriol. 104: 410‑433.
  2. Kaneko, T. and R.R.Colwell. 1973. Ecology of Vibrio parahaemolyticus in Chesapeake Bay. J. Bacteriol. 113: 24-32.
  3. Stevenson, L. H. and R. R. Colwell. 1973. Estuarine Microbial Ecology. University South Carolina Press. 536 pp.
  4. Staley T.E. and R.R. Colwell. 1973. Application of molecular genetics and numerical    taxonomy to the classification of bacteria. Ann. Rev. Ecol. System. 4: 273‑300.
  5. Colwell, R. R. and R. Morita. 1974. Effect of the Ocean Environment on Microbial Activities.  University Park Press, Baltimore, MD., 587 pp.
  6. Walker, J., L. Petrakis and R.R. Colwell. 1976. Comparison of the biodegradability of crude and fuel oils. Can. J. Microbiol. 22:598‑602.
  7. Xu,H.-S., N.Roberts, F.L.Singleton, R.W.Attwell, D.J.Grimes, and R.R.Colwell. 1982. Survival and viability of non-culturable Escherichea coli and Vibrio cholerae in the estuarine and marine environment. Microb.Ecol. 8:313-323.
  8. Huq, A., E. Small, P. West, M. Huq, R. Rahman and R.R. Colwell. 1983. Ecological   relationships between Vibrio cholerae and planktonic crustacean copepods. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 45: 275‑283.
  9. Colwell, R. R. 1984. (ed.) Vibrios in the Environment. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. New York, N. Y. 634 pp.
  10. Colwell R.R., P.R. Brayton, D.J. Grimes, D.B. Roszak, S.A. Huq, and L.M. Palmer 1985. Viable, but non-culturable Vibrio cholerae and related pathogens in the environment: implications for release of genetically engineered microorganisms. Bio/Technology 3: 817-820
  11. Roszak, D.B. and R.R. Colwell.  1987.  Suvival strategies of bacteria in the natural environment. Microbiol. Rev. 51: 365-379
  12. Colwell, R. R. 1988. Biomolecular Data: Research in Transition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 373 pp.
  13. Colwell R.R. 1996. Global climate and infectious disease: the cholera paradigm. Science 274: 2025-2031
  14. Colwell, R. R., K. Ohwada and U. Simidu. 1996. Microbial Diversity in Time and Space.  Plenum Press, 172 pp.
  15. Heidelberg J.F., J.A. Eisen, W.C. Nelson, R.A. Clayton, M.L. Gwinn, R.J. Dodson, D.H. Haft, E.K. Hickey, J.D. Peterson, L. Umayam, S.R. Gill, K.E. Nelson, T.D. Read, H. Tettelin, D. Richardson, M.D. Ermolaeva, J. Vamathevan, S. Bass, H. Qin, I. Dragoi, P. Sellers, L. McDonald, T. Utterback, R.D. Fleishmann, W.C. Nierman, O. White, S.L. Salzberg, H.O. Smith, R.R. Colwell, J.J. Mekalanos, J.C. Venter, and C.M. Fraser. 2000. DNA sequence of both chromosomes of the cholera pathogen Vibrio cholerae. Nature 406: 477-484
  16. Colwell R.R., A. Huq, M.S. Islam, K.M.A. Aziz, M. Yunus, N.H. Khan, A. Mahmud, R.B. Sack, G.B. Nair, J. Chakraborti, D.A. Sack, and E. Russek-Cohen. 2003. Reduction of cholera in Bangladeshi villages by simple filtration. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 100: 1051-1055
  17. Belkin S., and R.R. Colwell. 2005. Oceans and health: pathogens in the marine environment. Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. New York, NY., 464 pp.
  18. Morrison R., M. I. Krichevsky, and R. R. Colwell. 2011. Coding Microbiological data for Computers. Springer Series in Microbiology. Orlando, FL., 310 pp.
  19. Vezzulli L., C. Grand, P. C. Reid, P. Hélaouët, M. Edwards, M. G. Höfle, I. Brettar, R. R. Colwell and C. Pruzzo. 2016.  Climate influence on Vibrio and associated human diseases during the past half-century in the coastal North Atlantic. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1609157113. This article contains supporting information online at