It is with sadness the Department of Biology reports the death of esteemed alumnus C. David Allis, who passed away in Seattle on January 8, 2023. Allis earned his Ph.D. from the department in 1978.
Allis was a molecular biologist who was a pioneer in epigenetics, specifically on how histone proteins are modified and how this affects gene expression.
"At around the time that David was starting his career, other labs were very excited about a new class of gene activators called transcription factors," wrote Scott Michaels, chair of the department. "Researchers showed that transcription factors could activate gene expression, but had no idea what the mechanism might be. Like many people who make great scientific breakthroughs, David was probably not looking to establish a new field of biology. While labs were puzzling over how transcription factors might work, David was curious about a different question: how modifications were added to histone proteins. Scientists knew then that histones were modified but had little idea how or what the significance might be. David focused on identifying the enzymes that were responsible for histone acetylation. When he identified them, he found that they were the very transcription factors that other groups were studying. Thus David’s work provided one of the first demonstrations that transcription factors could function through modifying histones, launching an entirely new field of biology."
Simply put, Allis's discoveries greatly enhanced understanding of the genetic "on-off" and "volume" switches known to the scientific community as gene expression.
Allis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree during the 2015 Indiana University graduate commencement ceremony. Allis presented the graduate commencement address that year.
"A true pioneer in his field, David Allis has made major contributions to our understanding of the role genetics plays in the development of complex human diseases,” then IU President Michael A. McRobbie noted at the time. “His discoveries concerning cellular development and gene expression have positioned him at the forefront of modern-era biologists and, more importantly, point to potentially far-reaching consequences in the fight against cancer and other deadly diseases."
C. David Allis had served as the Joy and Jack Fishman Professor and head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics at The Rockefeller University from 2003-2022. He was recipient of the 2018 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.