University of Pittsburgh

The Dickson Prize in Medicine

2002 Dickson Prize Winner

C. David Allis, PhD

C. David Allis, PhD

Joy and Jack Fishman Professor
Head, Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics
Rockefeller University

2002 Dickson Prize in Medicine Lecture
“Translating the Histone Code: A Tale of Tails”

The focus of research in the laboratory of C. David Allis, PhD, is deciphering and translating the “histone code.” Histone proteins form nucleosomal complexes that make up eukaryotic chromatin, which manages the genetic information in each cell and facilitates access to specific genes. The way DNA is packaged within chromatin determines how the DNA functions in terms of transcription, replication, and chromosome segregation. At the most fundamental level, these functions are controlled by histones. Allis’s laboratory favors the view that histone proteins are major carriers of epigenetic information.

Allis’s research deals with how chemical changes to histone proteins affect gene expression. Through enzymatic processes such as histone acetylation or histone methylation, for example, histones are believed to function like a master on/off switch and determine whether particular genes are active or inactive. Knowing how to control which genes to turn on or off could reduce the risk of certain diseases, such as by activating genes that suppress tumor growth and deactivating genes that support it.

Allis did graduate studies (MS and PhD in biology) at Indiana University and postdoctoral work at the University of Rochester before he began his research career at Baylor College of Medicine. When he won the Dickson Prize in Medicine, he was the Harry F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, professor of microbiology, and a member of the Center for Cell Signaling at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. (Since then, Allis has moved to Rockefeller University, where he is the Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics.)

His honors include the 2000 Hamner Distinguished Lecturer Award for Molecular Cell Biology at Virginia Tech, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, and the 2001 Baxter Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences from the Association of American Medical Colleges. (After winning the Dickson Prize, Allis also was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and received the 2003 Massry Prize from the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation, the 2004 Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, and the 2007 Gairdner Foundation International Award.)

(Originally published Sept. 18, 2002)