BS, Biology, Northern Illinois University
PhD, Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Michigan
Today, Jerry Workman, PhD, is known for his pioneering work uncovering the role of histones in the regulation of gene expression. But he was considering becoming a wildlife biologist until a class on electron microscopes in college steered him toward cell biology. “I was preparing the samples, doing the microscopy, doing real exploratory research,” he recalls. “That really put me over the top.”
Workman continued pursuing his interest with electron microscopy as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, using the tool to zoom in on tiny pieces of chromatin, the term for the whole DNA/protein package. He moved to New York City for his postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University — a big transition for the Midwesterner. “I had been living in a farmhouse, where we had to chop up logs for the wood burner,” Workman says. “Then I moved to this high-rise Manhattan apartment building. It was quite a shock.”
There, he worked in the lab of Robert Roeder, PhD, a pillar in the field of gene regulation and one of the first scientists to discover transcription factors, proteins that turn on gene expression. In Roeder’s lab, Workman showed that transcription factors and nucleosomes compete for DNA sequences to activate or repress genes. In 1992, Workman established his own lab at Pennsylvania State University. In 1998, he became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a position he forfeited to join the Stowers Institute in 2003. At the Stowers Institute, he continued his work in gene regulation in yeast, fruit flies, and mammalian cells. Over the years, Workman maintained a close research collaboration with his wife, the late Susan Abmayr, PhD, who brought fruit fly genetics to his lab.
In addition to his research, Workman heads the postdoctoral training program at the Stowers Institute. A dedicated mentor, Workman has trained several generations of postdoctoral researchers, many of whom have gone on and established successful research careers of their own.
The Workman Lab studies how large protein complexes modify chromatin and control gene expression in yeast, fruit flies, and mammalian cells. Studying the mechanism of, and mutations in, these protein complexes offers insight into human health and disease. “Gene regulation is very intimately involved in aspects of cancer as well as many other diseases,” Workman says.
The human DNA code is three billion letters long, and if stretched out in a line, it would span six feet. To squeeze into the tiny nucleus of each cell, every 200 letters or so the DNA wraps around protein balls, called histones, so that it resembles beads on a string. The necklace then gets folded and compressed many times over, ultimately forming finger-like chromosomes.
Workman was one of the first scientists to discover that histones, proteins that keep the genomic DNA neatly organized inside the cell nucleus, are both important for the packaging of DNA into chromatin, a component of chromosomes, and crucial players in the regulation of gene expression. He is also a pioneer of the concept of “transcription co-activators.” His team has identified and characterized various large protein complexes that modify gene expression by causing histones to either loosen or tighten their grips on DNA, leaving it open to enzymes that can efficiently read its code and turn on genes.
More recently, Workman’s focus has been on how signaling, metabolism, and chromatin regulate information contained in the DNA sequence and feedback to cellular events. In 2018, Workman was awarded a Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences based on the lab’s research on chromatin-modifying complexes, including a focus on the multi-subunit complexes SAGA and SWI/SNF. Workman has shown how chromatin-modifying complexes influence RNA regulation. Mutations in these and other complexes have been implicated in cancer and other diseases.
National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award
Changjiang Scholar Award ("Yangtze River" Scholar award), Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China
Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
National Institutes of Health MERIT Award
Associate Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Faculty Scholars Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Life and Health Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University