C. David Allis, Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics, has won the 2016 Gruber Genetics Prize. He shares the $500,000 award with Michael Grunstein of the University of California, Los Angeles. The award, given by The Gruber Foundation, recognizes their groundbreaking work in identifying the critical role of histones and histone modifications in regulating gene activity.
The Gruber Foundation, established at Yale University in 2011, awards three prizes each year in the physical and life sciences. Considered among the most prestigious awards in the sciences, the prizes honor those whose work provides new models that inspire and enable fundamental shifts in knowledge and culture. Allis and Grunstein will be presented with the Gruber Genetics Prize on October 21 in Vancouver at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.
Histones were long considered nothing more than the material that “packages” DNA into structures called nucleosomes, the building blocks of the chromatin complex that form chromosomes within the nucleus of eukaryotic cells. In the late 1980s, Grunstein demonstrated that histones perform highly specific roles in regulating gene transcription in living cells and are the direct targets of certain transcriptional regulatory proteins. A few years later, Allis and Grunstein identified specific enzymes that add or remove an acetyl chemical group to or from the tail of a histone molecule. These studies highlighted a role for histone acetylation in gene activity. The results of these and other discoveries revolutionized the field of molecular genetics by demonstrating that changes to the histones alter gene activity without affecting the DNA sequence. Their work, which has broad implications for human health, has advanced understanding of medical conditions ranging from birth defects to cancer.
Allis received his Ph.D. in biology in 1978 from Indiana University. He did his postdoctoral work at the University of Rochester. Before joining Rockefeller in 2003, Allis served on the faculties of Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Virginia. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among other honors, Allis has received the 2004 Wiley Prize, the 2007 Canada Gairdner International Award, the 2014 Japan Prize, and the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.