Research at Whitehead

Whitehead Institute provides researchers with the resources and freedom to follow their scientific instincts, form novel collaborations, and conduct high-risk research. While probing basic biological processes, the Institute’s 16 faculty Members and 3 Fellows develop innovative technologies and lay the foundation for projects that improve human health. They run pioneering programs in cancer, immunology, developmental biology, stem cell science, regenerative medicine, genetics, and genomics.




Research News

September 24, 2020

Type 1 diabetes from a beta cell’s perspective

A new experimental system shows how insulin-producing beta cells react under autoimmune attack during type 1 diabetes; the results could lead to better treatments

Image of small parasites infecting a larger host cell.

September 23, 2020

These genes help explain how malaria parasites survive treatment with common drug

Whitehead Institute Member Sebastian Lourido’s CRISPR screen technique reveals factors in parasites’ susceptibility to antibiotics

September 16, 2020

Bringing new energy to mitochondria research

Whitehead Institute researchers may have identified the long-sought after transport molecule for NAD, a molecule used to produce the energy that powers our cells.

July 29, 2020

This molecule helps sweet-toothed protein complex sense sugar

A new study identifies a key step involved in the breakdown of glucose that allows the mTORC1 complex to sense sugar in its environment, leading to a metabolic response in the cell

July 22, 2020

Proteins — and labs — coming together to prevent Rett syndrome

New discoveries about the disruption of condensates in the neurodevelopmental disorder Rett syndrome provide insights into how cells compartmentalize chromosomes as well as new potential paths for therapies.

July 5, 2020

Parasite research heats up

Whitehead Institute researchers have used thermal profiling to match a potential antiparasitic drug to its target in Toxoplasma gondii, providing insight into the parasite’s calcium signaling pathways that could help in the development of therapeutics to treat infection.

June 25, 2020

These muscle cells are guideposts to help regenerative flatworms grow back their eyes

A new study from Peter Reddien's Lab at Whitehead Institute is a step forward in understanding how neural circuits could be regenerated in adults

June 18, 2020

Discovery of how cancer drugs find their targets could lead to a new toolset for drug development

Researchers in Richard Young’s lab at Whitehead Institute and collaborators have discovered how certain cancer therapeutics concentrate within cells -- a finding that could change the way scientists think about drug design.

May 28, 2020

Cellular players get their moment in the limelight

Whitehead Institute researchers have expanded their set of tools for investigating individual organelles, providing a new level of accuracy and detail to the study of cell metabolism.

May 20, 2020

Where there's a will, there might need to be a new scientific way

When Whitehead Institute researchers don’t have the tools to answer their questions, they build them.

Tiny green HIV viruses surround a pink blood cell.

May 6, 2020

HIV genome bends over backwards to help virus take over cells

Differently shaped RNA molecules allow HIV to express different genes from the same RNA sequence

May 5, 2020

Making medicine runs in the family

A family of enzymes in plants plays an important role in the production of many medicines. Whitehead Institute researchers discovered how the enzymes in this family diversified to produce so many different molecules, and demonstrated how this knowledge could be used to engineer novel plant-based medicines.

A split image shows healthy and diseased airway cilia side by side. The healthy cilia are well-defined, the diseased look a little shapeless and stuck together.

April 22, 2020

From bedside to bench, and back again

A mysterious case in the clinic led Whitehead Institute researchers to discover a new genetic lung condition

April 20, 2020

Harnessing the moonseed plant’s chemical know-how

Researchers discover how the vine creates a natural anti-cancer product

April 1, 2020

A new approach refining multiple sclerosis genetics hits a nerve

Whitehead Institute researchers used a new approach for analyzing genetic risk data and discovered that disease-linked genes cause problems in brain cells that contribute to multiple sclerosis, which had been thought of as a solely autoimmune disease. This information could lead to the development of new therapies for multiple sclerosis, and the approach can be applied to gain insights into other diseases.

March 4, 2020

Chimeras offer a new way to study childhood cancers in mice

By seeding mouse nervous systems with human cells, researchers have created a system to model human neuroblastoma tumors. 

February 20, 2020

To be long-lived or short-lived?

Whitehead team offers sweeping view of messenger RNA stability and degradation across thousands of genes

February 4, 2020

Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini Receives the 2020 Sjöberg Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The award recognizes Sabatini’s pathbreaking work on mTOR and cancer metabolism

A Toxoplasma cyst isolated from a mouse brain. The cyst wall is stained green and the parasites are stained magenta.

January 16, 2020

Putting a finger on the switch of chronic parasite infection

Researchers at Whitehead Institute have discovered the master regulator necessary for the pervasive parasite Toxoplasma gondii to chronically infect its host. This finding provides important insights into the parasite’s biology and allows scientists in the laboratory to control if and when the parasite can differentiate into its chronic stage, which may inform research into prevention and treatment of infection.

Two halves of a puzzle being fitted together

December 5, 2019

The surprising individuality of microRNAs

Whitehead Institute researchers advance the predictive model for the influence of microRNAs on gene expression in a cell. Their findings illustrate that high-, medium-, and low-affinity microRNA target sites unexpectedly vary between different microRNAs, and that in some cases they include imperfectly matched sequences.


November 26, 2019

Whitehead Institute team develops new method to study human brain cells

Approach could accelerate studies of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders

Images of plants, one with extra salicylic acid

November 22, 2019

Building a roadmap for salicylic acid

Whitehead Institute researchers identify missing enzymes in the biosynthetic pathway for salicylic acid, solving a decades-old puzzle

Embryonic testis with PGCs in red

November 21, 2019

Committed to reproduction

Whitehead Institute researchers have rewritten the timeline for when and how embryonic cells commit to becoming sex cells, the cells that produce eggs and sperm, and gained insights into the development of testicular cancer.

The FLCN-FNIP-Rag-Ragulator complex

November 5, 2019

Whitehead team solves structure of key mTORC1 activator

Findings shed light on the mechanics of mTORC1 signaling, lay the foundation for drug discovery 

Image of structure of the raptor - rag - ragulator protein comples

October 10, 2019

Whitehead Institute team resolves structure of master growth regulator

New paper in Science reveals how mTORC1 docks at lysosomal surface  

Illustration of moths around a light

September 25, 2019

Signaling factor seeking gene

Whitehead Institute researchers have discovered that particular signaling pathways, which transmit environmental cues and effect changes in gene expression, rely on phase-separated condensates to find, occupy, and activate the right genes in each cell type

Illustration of scientist cutting a cell in half with a pizza cutter

August 15, 2019

To divide or not to divide?

Whitehead Institute team reveals molecular program that controls cells’ capacity for division

Illustration of a train on a DNA track between droplets

August 7, 2019

An emerging view of RNA transcription and splicing

Whitehead Institute scientists discover that chemical modification contributes to trafficking between non-membrane-bound compartments that control gene expression

Illustration of person using a claw machine to pick out a drug candidate

July 31, 2019

Speeding up drug discovery for brain diseases

Whitehead Institute team finds drugs that activate a key brain gene; initial tests in cells and mice show promise for rare, untreatable neurodevelopmental disorder

Kava plants

July 22, 2019

Multi “-omics” approach uncovers the riches of traditional global medicine

Researchers solve how the kava plant produces its pain-relieving and anti-anxiety molecules, and demonstrate an extensible method to scale and optimize their production

Photo showing the bell curve of women's and men's heights

July 18, 2019

Genetic study takes sex differences research to new heights

Researchers find differences in gene expression between males and females throughout the body in humans and other mammals, including ones that contribute to the average height difference between the sexes

Illustration of a mitochondrion

May 27, 2019

Drug-resistant cancer cells create own Achilles heel

Whitehead Institute and Broad Institute researchers determine that cancer cells commonly change their energy source, creating a weakness that the drug elesclomol exploits to resensitize cancer cells to proteasome inhibitors

Representation of the Zika virus's surface

April 22, 2019

How to be a good host (for Zika virus)

Using a genome-wide CRISPR screen in neural progenitor cells, Whitehead Institute scientists uncover what the Zika virus needs to infect human cells

Illustration of egg with sperm swimming toward it

April 9, 2019

A troubling inheritance

Researchers have found that certain epigenetic changes in mice that appear to be inherited by offspring can lead to increased cancer rates

Photo of two planarians

April 8, 2019

A supportive role for planarians’ multifaceted muscle

In planarians, muscle is critical not only for movement and regeneration of body parts, but also for producing the body’s architectural support system around cells

Photo of Postdoc Shawn Liu and Whitehead Institute Member Rudolf Jaensich with STAT logo

April 8, 2019

Whitehead Institute researchers win STAT's Editor's Pick award

Whitehead Institute Member Rudolf Jaenisch and Shawn Liu, a postdoc in his lab, were chosen for the honor by STAT staff

Electromicroscopy image of an Arabidopsis anther filled with pollen grains

March 18, 2019

Scaffolding the nursery of pollen development

Whitehead researchers identify critical components of the scaffolding that supports and protects pollen production

Immunofluorescence microscopy for meiotic markers in adult mouse testes

February 27, 2019

Start signal for sex cell creation

One protein is responsible for regulating a large network of genes that prompt cells to begin meiosis, the type of cell division that produces sex cells

Illustration of blood cells

February 28, 2019

Pumping up red blood cell production

Whitehead Institute scientists refine our understanding of how red blood cells are created

Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) cells lose form and fail to replicate after degradation of GAPM proteins.

January 23, 2019

How one parasite stays in shape

Researchers in Whitehead Institute Member Sebastian Lourido’s lab identify the linchpin proteins of parasite Toxoplasma gondii’s cytoskeleton.

Illustration of person pulling down a segment of DNA

January 16, 2019

Revising the textbook on introns

Whitehead Institute researchers uncover a group of introns in yeast with surprising stability and function

Pollen grains

December 17, 2018

A tough case cracked

The detailed molecular structure of the inert plant material sporopollenin — key for the emergence of land plants — has been resolved

November 27, 2018

Uncovering the “must-haves” of tissue regeneration

Biological program triggered by large injuries not required for regeneration, Whitehead Institute team finds

Slide of a plant embryo

November 19, 2018

Plant characteristics shaped by parental conflict

Differences in common traits within a plant species, such as seed size, can be determined by more than gene sequence.

Illustration of observatory focused on DNA constellation

November 15, 2018

Activating a new understanding of gene regulation

A previously mysterious part of transcription factors, the activation domain, plays a key role in forming phase separated "droplets" that concentrate proteins required for transcription near genes

Image of goji berries

October 29, 2018

Heart-healthy plant chemistry

A novel genomic approach helps identify medicinal compounds in plants.

Firefly on leaf; Radim Schreiber -

October 16, 2018

How many evolutionary events can it take to screw in nature’s lightbulb?

Firefly genomics reveals independent evolution of bioluminescence in beetles

Illustration of a hand assembling a brain jigsaw puzzle

October 9, 2018

Only in your head

Researchers uncover how a ubiquitously expressed mutation causes a brain-specific disorder.

Toxoplasma gondii parasites

September 18, 2018

Parasite’s riff on essential enzyme highlights unique biology

In the apicomplexan parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondiiWhitehead Member Sebastian Lourido studies, he has identified key components of the ATP synthase which differ from that of humans. These differences underscore the unique biology of T. gondii and highlight the dissimilarities between them and their human hosts.    

Illustration of the Y chromosome

August 2, 2018

The Y Chromosome: Holding steadfast in a sea of change

The lab of Whitehead Member David Page has examined a series of regions on the Y chromosome called amplicons.

Illustration of woman shooting at a cancer monster

July 11, 2018

Sharpening the edges of cancer chemotherapy

Whitehead team deploys CRISPR tools to better understand and uncover ways of improving methotrexate, a popular chemotherapy drug.

Images of condensates and model of a condensate

June 21, 2018

Transcriptional droplets provide evidence for new model of gene control

Whitehead Institute scientists have found evidence that the apparatus that transcribes DNA into RNA is concentrated into specialized droplets, or “condensates”, at genes that control cell identity. 

Astrocytes infected with Zika virus

June 19, 2018

Stem cell-derived Zika model suggests mechanisms underlying microcephaly

Infected microglia cells can ferry Zika virus to developing brain

Illustration of a brain containing RNAs

June 7, 2018

Network of diverse noncoding RNAs acts in the brain

First known network consisting of three types of regulatory RNAs is identified

Image of planarians

April 19, 2018

New single-cell database to propel biological studies

Whitehead team analyzes transcriptomes for roughly 70,000 cells in planarians, creates publicly available database to drive research in a variety of organisms and fields

Illustration of a woman with breast cancer

April 11, 2018

Study suggests perioperative NSAIDs may prevent early metastatic relapse in post-surgical breast cancer patients

Mouse study links early metastasis to systemic inflammation caused by wound healing

Image of GATOR1 structure

March 28, 2018

Structure of key growth regulator revealed

Researchers solve molecular structure of GATOR1 complex using cryo-electron microscopy

Image of mouse pancreas with engrafted human beta cells

March 23, 2018

Novel human/mouse model could boost type 1 diabetes research

Researchers at Whitehead Institute have developed a novel platform with human beta cells that could allow scientists to better understand the mechanisms underlying type 1 diabetes and what provokes it.

Three-eyed planarians

March 15, 2018

A Blueprint for Regeneration

Researchers at Whitehead Institute have uncovered a framework for regeneration that may explain and predict how stem cells in adult, regenerating tissue determine where to form replacement structures.

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