James Alan Kennison, Ph.D.

Senior Investigator

Section on Drosophila Gene Regulation


6B 3B331



Research Topics

Our goal is to understand how linear information encoded in genomic DNA functions to control cell fates during development. The Drosophila genome is about twenty times smaller than the human genome. Despite its smaller size, most developmental genes and at least half of the disease- and cancer-causing genes in man are conserved in Drosophila, making Drosophila a particularly important model system for the study of human development and disease. One of the important groups of conserved developmental genes are the homeotic genes. In Drosophila, the homeotic genes specify cell identities at both the embryonic and adult stages. The genes encode homeodomain-containing transcription factors that control cell fates by regulating the transcription of downstream target genes. The homeotic genes are expressed in precise spatial patterns that are crucial for the proper determination of cell fate. Both loss of expression and ectopic expression in the wrong tissues lead to changes in cell fate. The changes provide powerful assays for identifying the trans-acting factors that regulate the homeotic genes and the cis-acting sequences through which they act. The trans-acting factors are also conserved between Drosophila and human and have important functions, not only in development but also in stem-cell maintenance and cancer.


Dr. James A. Kennison is the head of the Section on Drosophila Gene Regulation in the Program on Genomics of Differentiation, NICHD. He has a long-standing interest in how cellular diversity is established and maintained. As a confirmed Drosophila geneticist, Dr. Kennison has used the sophisticated genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to identify and characterize the genes involved in one particular developmental step, the specification of segmental identity in the fly. Segmental identity is specified by the homeotic genes, the Drosophila homologues of the HOX genes of vertebrates. Because the homeotic genes have 100-kb cis-regulatory regions that control their developmental expression patterns, a large number of proteins are required to specify and maintain expression. Two groups of genes that function to maintain patterns of gene activity, the Polycomb and trithorax groups, are conserved between Drosophila and humans and have become the focus of much recent work on epigenetics and cancer. Dr. Kennison received his B.S. from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and his Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, San Diego, in 1979. Dr. Kennison was a postdoctoral fellow at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain and at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He was a research associate at the University of Colorado in Boulder before joining the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of NICHD in 1987. Dr. Kennison has been a member of the Genetics Society of America and the American Drosophila Society since 1976. During that time, he has authored numerous scientific papers and review articles.

Selected Publications

  1. Cunningham MD, Gause M, Cheng Y, Noyes A, Dorsett D, Kennison JA, Kassis JA. Wapl antagonizes cohesin binding and promotes Polycomb-group silencing in Drosophila. Development. 2012;139(22):4172-9.

  2. Gilliland WD, May DP, Colwell EM, Kennison JA. A Simplified Strategy for Introducing Genetic Variants into <i>Drosophila</i> Compound Autosome Stocks. G3 (Bethesda). 2016;6(11):3749-3755.

  3. Kassis JA, Kennison JA, Tamkun JW. Polycomb and Trithorax Group Genes in <i>Drosophila</i>. Genetics. 2017;206(4):1699-1725.

  4. Lindsley DL, Roote J, Kennison JA. Anent the genomics of spermatogenesis in Drosophila melanogaster. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e55915.

  5. Monribot-Villanueva J, Juárez-Uribe RA, Palomera-Sánchez Z, Gutiérrez-Aguiar L, Zurita M, Kennison JA, Vázquez M. TnaA, an SP-RING protein, interacts with Osa, a subunit of the chromatin remodeling complex BRAHMA and with the SUMOylation pathway in Drosophila melanogaster. PLoS One. 2013;8(4):e62251.

This page was last updated on October 28th, 2019