University of Rochester

C. David Allis Named Wilson Professor of Biology

July 25, 1997

C. David Allis, an internationally recognized expert in molecular and cell biology at the University of Rochester, has been named the Marie Curran Wilson and Joseph Chamberlain Wilson Professor of Biology.

Allis' research is offering new insights into one of biology's most fundamental, yet enigmatic, questions -- how genes are turned on and off in organisms ranging from fruit flies to humans. His findings on this step, crucial to the development of all living things, have caught the attention of scientists around the world.

"David Allis is an extraordinary scientist, whose unbridled enthusiasm for his own work is a model for both faculty colleagues and students," says Thomas LeBlanc, dean of the College faculty. "We are extremely proud that he is a member of our faculty."

Allis is one of several biologists at the University looking at a process that has long perplexed scientists. While all of an organism's cells carry the same genetic information in their DNA, only a small portion is used by any given cell, because cells turn on only the genes they need. The mechanism underpinning this genetic wizardry has largely remained a mystery.

Through its groundbreaking work with a class of enzymes known as histone acetyltransferases, or HATs, Allis' research group has discovered the strongest evidence so far linking gene activation to the uncoiling of the tightly wound form in which DNA is usually stored, a finding that helps scientists understand viral infectious diseases and cancer. Alan Wolffe, a widely recognized DNA expert, ranked these findings as "some of the most exciting in the field in the last 10 years."

Allis' lab also examines the intracellular structures called organelles that carry out a cell's functions. In work published last year, the group discovered a new cellular structure dubbed a "dumposome" in the one-celled organism Tetrahymena. The dumposome works like a genetic garbage disposal and may even be a distinct organelle.

Allis credits much of his success to his very supportive family and to hard-working and talented research associates. "Among the best rewards of my work are the people and students I've had the privilege of working with over the years," says Allis.

Allis has co-authored more than 100 scientific papers; the 30 papers he's written in his two years at Rochester have been published in such prestigious journals as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Cell, and Nature. His research is currently supported by $2.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Human Frontier Science Program. He is already scheduled to speak at 40 seminars and symposia around the world through 1999.

Allis graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Cincinnati and holds a master's degree and Ph.D. from Indiana University. From 1978 to 1981 he conducted postdoctoral research at Rochester. Before returning to the University as a professor two years ago, Allis served on the faculties of Baylor College of Medicine and Syracuse University, which recognized his outstanding graduate teaching with numerous awards. At Rochester Allis teaches an introductory cell biology course and advanced courses in the structure and function of organelles.

The Wilson professorship in biology is one of six University chairs funded since 1967 by the Wilson family. Joseph Chamberlain Wilson was a Rochester graduate who went on to become chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation. He served as chair of the University's Board of Trustees from 1959 to 1967, when he became honorary chair until his death in 1971.