• For Dr. Melissa Harris, getting a gray hair is cause for celebration! This is because Dr. Harris studies the melanocyte stem cells that reside within our hair follicles, and it is the loss of these stem cells that causes gray hair. She has found that melanocyte stem cells are an ideal somatic stem cell population to investigate the cell biology, genetics, and genomics behind the question, “Why do we age the way we do?”

    Dr. Harris’s training makes her well suited to this task; she’s studied pigmentation from the beginning while mixing in a combination of cell biology, developmental biology, genetics, and genomics along the way. Her interest in biological research as a career began in earnest as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis. She interned in labs studying the population genetics of Dungeness crab, and applied genetic analysis to help uncover the genetic basis of coat color in horses. Dr. Harris performed her graduate work in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, also at UC Davis, where she studied with Dr. Carol Erickson. Here she used the chick embryo as a model to investigate the role of transmembrane receptors in directing the migration of melanoblasts, melanocyte precursors, into the skin. In 2009 she joined the National Human Genome Research Institute of the NIH and Dr. Bill Pavan’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow. Here she found footing in the world of biomedical research and established her current approach to exploit mouse models of hair graying to study mechanisms of somatic stem cell maintenance.

    Throughout her time training, Dr. Harris has received numerous awards. She was recognized as a winner for the trans-institute, NIH Three-minute Talk competition where she was challenged to present her work in under three minutes in plain language. Watch her talk, and be your own judge. Notably, she was also the recipient of an NIH Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institute on Aging, a five-year grant for postdocs transitioning to faculty positions. Beyond the lab, Dr. Harris has a genuine interest in teaching and mentoring and participated as a teacher in youth programs like 'Adventures in Science', as a mentor in undergraduate programs like the NIH Community College Summer Internship Program, and as a hands-on bioinformatics instructor within Honors College at the University of Maryland. In another realm, Dr. Harris is the mother of two rough-and-tumble kids who remind her daily that she only gets to be the boss when she’s in lab.
  • Selected Publications

    Academic Article

    Year Title Altmetric
    2022 Current Insights Into the Role of Neuropeptide Y in Skin Physiology and PathologyFrontiers in Endocrinology.  13. 2022
    2021 A novel mouse model to evaluate neuropeptide Y–mediated melanocyte pathologyExperimental Dermatology.  30:1800-1806. 2021
    2021 Mitochondrial DNA-depleter mouse as a model to study human pigmentary skin disordersPigment Cell and Melanoma Research.  34:179-187. 2021
    2021 Topical RT1640 treatment effectively reverses gray hair and stem cell loss in a mouse model of radiation-induced canitiesPigment Cell and Melanoma Research.  34:89-100. 2021
    2019 Identification of gene variants associated with melanocyte stem cell differentiation in mice predisposed for hair grayingG3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics.  9:817-827. 2019
    2018 Real or fake? Natural and artificial social stimuli elicit divergent behavioural and neural responses in mangrove rivulus, Kryptolebias marmoratusProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.  285. 2018
    2018 A direct link between MITF, innate immunity, and hair grayingPLoS Biology.  16. 2018
    2017 The RhoJ-BAD signaling network: An Achilles’ heel for BRAF mutant melanomasPLoS Genetics.  13. 2017
    2015 Genomic analysis reveals distinct mechanisms and functional classes of SOX10-regulated genes in melanocytesHuman Molecular Genetics.  24:5433-5450. 2015
    2015 Ectopic differentiation of melanocyte stem cells is influenced by genetic backgroundPigment Cell and Melanoma Research.  28:223-228. 2015
    2013 A Dual Role for SOX10 in the Maintenance of the Postnatal Melanocyte Lineage and the Differentiation of Melanocyte Stem Cell ProgenitorsPLoS Genetics.  9. 2013
    2013 Postnatal lineage mapping of follicular melanocytes with the Tyr:: CreERT2 transgenePigment Cell and Melanoma Research.  26:269-274. 2013
    2010 Sox proteins in melanocyte development and melanomaPigment Cell and Melanoma Research.  23:496-513. 2010
    2009 Stripes and belly-spots-A review of pigment cell morphogenesis in vertebratesSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology.  20:90-104. 2009
    2008 Directing pathfinding along the dorsolateral path - The role of EDNRB2 and EphB2 in overcoming inhibitionDevelopment (Cambridge).  135:4113-4122. 2008
    2007 Lineage specification in neural crest cell pathfindingDevelopmental Dynamics.  236:1-19. 2007
    2006 SNIP1 Is a Candidate Modifier of the Transcriptional Activity of c-Myc on E Box-Dependent Target GenesMolecular Cell.  24:771-783. 2006
    2001 Targeted disruption of the methionine synthase gene in miceMolecular and Cellular Biology.  21:1058-1065. 2001

    Research Overview

  • At UAB, Dr. Harris will use melanocyte stem cells and hair graying mouse models to address the role of genetic modifiers in stem cell-related aging phenotypes, cellular, and genetic mechanisms that lead to stem cell aging, and systemic factors that contribute to loss of stem cell maintenance. She hopes that her discoveries will garner insight into biomedical approaches to prevent and repair stem cell-related degenerative disease and improve the way we age.

    Self-renewal of stem cells is essential to maintain long-term tissue homeostasis. One critical aspect of maintaining stem cell identity is the ability to suppress terminal differentiation; cues intended to promote differentiation in daughter cells must be adequately regulated in order to prevent differentiation in stem cells. Thus, over the lifetime of the organism, somatic stem cells need robust mechanisms to perpetuate this process in response to dynamic and variable regenerative requirements. And yet, a stem cell’s ability to manage differentiation programs changes with age. A clear understanding of the gene regulatory networks that impose on stem cell maintenance is an essential aspect of dissecting the aging phenotype.

    In order to evaluate mechanisms for somatic stem cell self-renewal we have harnessed the melanocyte stem cell (McSC) and hair graying mouse models. Hair graying is a relevant, but understudied phenotype in regards to aging. In humans and mice, hair graying is associated with normal aging and is caused by premature McSC differentiation. Our previous studies of hair graying mouse models have shown that both the melanocyte lineage-specific differentiation program and unrelated, novel pathways can impact McSC maintenance. This suggests that the continued assessment of other hair graying mouse models may reveal additional genetic mechanisms regulating somatic stem self-renewal and differentiation. Using this approach and the tools we have established for interrogating McSCs (cellular, molecular, and genome-wide), we will investigate a number of hair graying mouse models. This is includes hair graying caused by exposure to ionizing radiation (and the role of reactive oxygen species in this process) and hair graying as a result of aging. We will identify the genetic factors associated with each hair graying model, elucidate their mechanisms, and then place them in the context of other genes in the McSC network and the aging stem cell network.

    In addition to evaluating known hair graying mouse models, we are also identifying novel genetic pathways involved in McSC maintenance by identifying genetic modifiers of hair graying. Modifier genes have garnered increasing interest because of their potential contribution to variability in disease phenotypes. Longitudinal analyses of inbred mouse strains demonstrate that genetic background is also relevant to aging and lifespan. This suggests that identifying the genetic determinants responsible for variability in age-related phenotypes will yield novel insights into the cellular and molecular mechanisms for why we age the way we do. Using a genetic approach to predispose mice to premature McSC differentiation (Tg(Dct-Sox10)) we find that that the extent of McSC differentiation varies widely based on genetic background. Using genetic mapping approaches we can now identify the genetic basis of these strain-specific contributions to McSC maintenance. These studies underscore the relevance of evaluating genetic modifiers in age-related phenotypes, and suggest future investigations into whether these modifiers contribute more broadly to aging phenotypes in other tissues and whether this approach can predict predisposition for aging phenotypes in senile aging.

    Somatic Stem Cells and Aging, Genetic Mechanisms of Stem Cell Maintenance, Mouse Models of Hair Graying, Melanocyte Stem Cells
  • Teaching Activities

  • BY327 - Histology (Spring Term 2018)
  • BY327 - Histology (Spring Term 2019)
  • BY327 - Histology (Spring Term 2020)
  • BY327 - Histology (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY327 - Histology (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY327L - Histology Lab (Spring Term 2019)
  • BY327L - Histology Lab (Spring Term 2020)
  • BY327L - Histology Lab (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY327L - Histology Lab (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY330 - Cell Biology (Fall Term 2016)
  • BY330 - Cell Biology (Fall Term 2017)
  • BY330 - Cell Biology (Fall Term 2018)
  • BY330 - Cell Biology (Fall Term 2020)
  • BY397 - Advanced Directed Readings (Fall Term 2017)
  • BY397 - Advanced Directed Readings (Fall Term 2018)
  • BY398 - Undergrad Research - RES (Fall Term 2017)
  • BY398 - Undergrad Research - RES (Fall Term 2019)
  • BY398 - Undergrad Research - RES (Fall Term 2020)
  • BY398 - Undergrad Research - RES (Fall Term 2021)
  • BY527 - Histology (Spring Term 2019)
  • BY527 - Histology (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY527 - Histology (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY527L - Histology Laboratory (Spring Term 2019)
  • BY527L - Histology Laboratory (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY527L - Histology Laboratory (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY530 - Graduate Cell Biology (Fall Term 2020)
  • BY618 - Colloquium in Biology of Aging (Fall Term 2020)
  • BY618 - Colloquium in Biology of Aging (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY685 - Colloquium in Cell Biology (Fall Term 2019)
  • BY698 - Nonthesis Research (Fall Term 2021)
  • BY698 - Nonthesis Research (Spring Term 2020)
  • BY698 - Nonthesis Research (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY698 - Nonthesis Research (Summer Term 2020)
  • BY699 - Thesis Research (Fall Term 2020)
  • BY699 - Thesis Research (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY718 - Colloquium in Biology of Aging (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY785 - Colloquium in Cell Biology (Fall Term 2019)
  • BY797 - Investigative Techniques (Spring Term 2020)
  • BY797 - Investigative Techniques (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Fall Term 2019)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Fall Term 2020)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Fall Term 2021)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Spring Term 2018)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Spring Term 2019)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Spring Term 2020)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Summer Term 2019)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Summer Term 2020)
  • BY798 - Nondissertation Research (Summer Term 2021)
  • BY799 - Dissertation Research (Fall Term 2021)
  • BY799 - Dissertation Research (Spring Term 2021)
  • BY799 - Dissertation Research (Spring Term 2022)
  • BY799 - Dissertation Research (Summer Term 2021)
  • Education And Training

  • Doctor of Science or Mathematics in Cell / Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of California System : Davis 2008
  • Bachelor of Science or Mathematics in Genetics, University of California System : Davis 2000
  • Full Name

  • Melissa Harris