Member, Whitehead Institute
Assistant Professor of Biology, MIT
Every cell in an organism inherits the same DNA, and yet many organisms are composed of dozens of heritable cell types. If an organism’s DNA is its lexicon, then each cell type chooses specific words to form a story and passes that vocabulary list to its progeny. These words represent the expression of different genes. Using the small plant Arabidopsis thaliana, Mary Gehring is studying these changes in gene expression, called epigenetics.
Epigenetics includes many ways gene expression can be controlled. One way is through the addition of a molecule called a methyl group to cytosine, one of the four bases of DNA. When a section of DNA is methylated, the cell’s transcription machinery reads the DNA differently and some genes are effectively silenced.
Methylation is reversible and can change throughout a cell or organism’s life cycle. Gehring is particularly interested in how the methylation state changes during plant reproduction, from reproductive cells through seed maturation. These changes in methylation can signal if a gene came from the male or female parent. Such imprinted genes are expressed at different levels, depending from which parent they came. Gehring’s lab is studying how several imprinted genes function during seed development, how they are marked as imprinted, and if specific gene imprinting is conserved within the A. thaliana species and between A. thaliana and closely related species.
Methylation patterns can be passed from one cell generation to the next and from one plant to its offspring. Unlike animals, which designate reproductive cells during embryogenesis, plants form reproductive cells as adults, which could allow the methylation changes accrued during a lifetime to be passed to the plant’s progeny. By studying the epigenetic difference between multiple generations of plants, the Gehring lab will see if epigenetic responses to environmental factors can ultimately lead to evolutionary changes.
Gehring came to Whitehead in 2010 and was named Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Career Development Professor by MIT in 2011. She began her scientific career at Williams College. She earned her doctorate from University of California Berkeley in 2005 and continued her studies as a postdoctoral researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
- NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (2001)
- HHMI Fellow, Life Sciences Research Foundation (2006)
- Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences (2011)