Faculty Member


Iain Cheeseman

Member, Whitehead Institute

Professor of Biology, MIT

Margaret and Herman Sokol Chair in Biomedical Research


Cheeseman Lab


Our lab studies the process of chromosome segregation and cell division. In particular, we use proteomics, biochemistry, cell biology, and functional approaches to examine the composition, structure, organization and function of the kinetochore — a structure composed of more than 100 proteins that assembles at the centromere and is required for chromosome segregation and cell division. We are particularly interested in the mechanisms that modulate and rewire core cell division processes — across the cell cycle, within the different cells of an organism, and during evolution.

Cell division is one of the most fundamental aspects of biology, the process that makes life, and Whitehead Member Iain Cheeseman believes it has an intrinsic beauty.

Captivated by this process while a graduate student in biology, Cheeseman has focused his research on the kinetochore, a key structure that helps to divvy up DNA molecules shortly before cells divide. This careful distribution ensures that each daughter cell receives a proper set of chromosomes and the genetic material they contain.

Early during cell division, each chromosome is duplicated and split into two identical copies known as chromatids, which must be sorted and organized to guarantee that new cells receive a single copy of each chromosome. Enter the kinetochore — a network of proteins that forms at a particular site, called the centromere, on each chromatid. The kinetochore physically connects the chromatids to an array of tiny cord-like proteins, called microtubules, that make up the "mitotic spindle". This framework correctly positions and splits the chromatids as the spindle pulls them apart.

Cheeseman has helped identify dozens of the kinetochore’s molecular components and their specific roles, and is defining how the attachments between kinetochores and spindle microtubules are regulated throughout cell division. His work is also shedding light on how the proteins that define the centromere are maintained over years or even decades. 

Because many cancers may be driven by errors in chromosome segregation, Cheeseman’s studies may inform cancer research. Certain cancer drugs target the connection between chromosomes and spindle microtubules, and some of the major proteins in the kinetochore complex have been implicated in leukemia and other diseases.

Cheeseman completed his undergraduate training at Duke University, and his graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a doctorate in molecular and cell biology in 2002. He carried out his postdoctoral work in the lab of Arshad Desai at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in San Diego and the University of California/San Diego. In 2007, he became a Member of Whitehead Institute and assistant professor at MIT. In 2017, he added the role of Associate Director at Whitehead Institute.

Selected achievements

  • Harold W. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center (2003)
  • Fellow, Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research (2003)
  • Smith Family New Investigator Award (2007)
  • Helped to identify dozens of the kinetochore’s molecular components and their specific roles
  • New Investigator Grant, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (2008-2011)
  • Searle Scholar Award (2009-2012)
  • Young Investigator grant, Human Frontier Science Program (2010)
  • Human Frontiers Science Program Young Investigator Award (2010-2013)
  • R.R. Bensley Award for Cell Biology from the American Association of Anatomists' (AAA) (2011)
  • American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) Early Career Life Scientist Award (2012)

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