james morrisJames Morris, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biology

A.B., Harvard University
M.D., Harvard University
Ph.D., Harvard University

Contact Information

I am interested in genetics, epigenetics, evolution, medicine, and history of science, and have been fortunate over the years to be able to teach and work in these fields. I pursue these diverse interests by focusing on teaching, research, writing, and science education.


I teach several courses for majors and non-majors at Brandeis. One of my favorites is part of the new introductory biology sequence and is called Biology 16a Evolution and Biodiversity. Evolution is the unifying theory of biology. It explains almost everything about the living world – both the diversity of life and the similarities among organisms. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said famously.

I also teach Biology 43b Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy. In this class, I take a broad view of anatomy, emphasizing embryology and development, comparative anatomy, and the relationship between structure and function. We take time in this class to do many dissections, providing a hands-on approach to the study of anatomy. I also use clinical cases as a way to integrate different organ systems and consider their roles in health and disease.

I am particularly excited about Biology 155a Project Laboratory in Genetics and Genomics. This course gives undergraduates a chance to do a genuine, laboratory-based research project in the context of a semester-long course. In addition, we take time in this class to learn to read and write research papers. There are also project labs focusing on neurobiology and behavior, cell biology, biochemistry, and biotechnology.

Other courses I regularly teach include a First Year Seminar on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, BISC 7a The Biology and Culture of Deafness, and Biology 124b Epigenetics.


For decades, DNA has been the focus of studies of gene expression and inheritance. More recently, researchers are looking beyond DNA by studying a diverse set of phenomena that are considered epigenetic. These processes result in stable, sometimes heritable changes in gene expression, but are often reversible and responsive to the environment. They result not from changes in DNA sequence, but instead from modifications to DNA bases, histones, chromatin, and chromosome structure. Examples include imprinting, X-inactivation, trans-gene silencing, co-suppression, paramutation, and repeat-induced point mutation.

My lab focuses on an epigenetic phenomenon known as transvection, and uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Homologous chromosomes in Drosophila are physically aligned and paired in somatic cells. The expression of some genes is sensitive to chromosome pairing, meaning that they show different expression patterns depending on whether chromosomes are paired or unpaired. This pairing sensitivity in gene expression is known as a transvection effect. Transvection has been documented at many genes in Drosophila, and related processes have been described in many organisms, including fungi, plants, and mammals. The study of transvection has provided insights into chromatin and chromosome structure, as well as the organization of chromosomes in the nucleus. 

I am pursuing this research with undergraduates who enroll in Biology 155a Project Laboratory in Genetics and Genomics. In addition, undergraduate and Master’s students are involved in independent research in my laboratory.


I am a lead author on a new college-level introductory biology textbook titled Biology: How Life Works with co-authors Dan Hartl, Andy Knoll, Rob Lue, Andrew Berry, Andy Biewener, Brian Farrell, Missy Holbrook, Naomi Pierce, and Alain Viel, and lead assessment author Melissa Michael. With all of the recent and exciting changes in biology, education, and technology, we wrote a book from the ground up that is relevant to today's students. Our goal was to move away from an emphasis on terms and facts, and instead convey concepts and ways of thinking that scientists use to understand the world around them and solve contemporary problems.

I also write reflections on science, medicine, and teaching, which can be found on my Science Whys blog.

Teaching Awards

Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Brandeis University, 2013
Letter of Commendation for Distinguished Teaching, Harvard Extension School, 2013
“Professor I Learned the Most From” Award, senior class, Brandeis University, 2011
Letter of Commendation for Distinguished Teaching, Harvard Extension School, 2006
Letter of Commendation for Distinguished Teaching, Harvard Extension School, 2005
Certificate of Distinction in Teaching, Biological Sciences 50, Harvard College, 2003-2004
Certificate of Distinction in Teaching, Biological Sciences 57, Harvard College, 2003-2004
Certificate of Distinction in Teaching, Biological Sciences 57, Harvard College, 2002-2003

Selected Publications

Morris, Hartl, Knoll, Lue, Berry, Biewener, Farrell, Holbrook, Pierce, Viel. 2013. Biology: How Life Works. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Hohl, Thompson, Shoshnev, Wu, Morris, Hsieh, Wu, Geyer. 2012. Restoration of Topoisomerase 2 Function by Complementation of Defective Monomers in DrosophilaGenetics 192: 843-856.

S. A. Ou, E. Chang*, S. Lee*, K. So*, C.-t. Wu, and J. R. Morris. 2009. Effects of chromosomal rearrangements on transvection at the yellow gene of Drosophila melanogaster. Genetics 183: 483-496.

D. L. Perlman and J. R. Morris. 2007. What the IPCC Said: A Citizens’ Guide to the IPCC Summary for Policymakers. Washington, D. C.: Island Press. http://www.islandpress.com/assets/library/37_whatipccsaidguide.pdf

J. R. Morris, T. Jehn, E. Pantages, C. Vaughan, T. Torello, M. Buchelli, D. Lohman, and R. Lue. 2005, revised 2007. A Student’s Guide to Writing in the Life Sciences. Harvard University.

J. R. Morris, D. A. Petrov, A. M. Lee, and C.-t. Wu. 2004. Enhancer choice in cis and in trans in Drosophila melanogaster: role of the promoter. Genetics 167: 1739-1747.

C.-t. Wu and J. R. Morris. 2001. Genes, genetics, and epigenetics: a correspondence. Science  293: 1103-1105.

C. D. Kaplan, J. R. Morris, C.-t. Wu, and F. Winston. 2000. Spt5 and Spt6 are associated with active transcription and have characteristics of general elongation factors in Drosophila melanogaster. Genes & Dev. 14: 2623-2634.

C.-t. Wu and J. R. Morris. 1999. Transvection and other homology effects. Curr. Opin. Genet. Dev. 9: 237-246.

J. R. Morris, P. K. Geyer, and C.-t. Wu. 1999. Core promoter elements can regulate transcription on a separate chromosome in trans. Genes & Dev. 13: 253-258.

J. R. Morris, J.-l Chen, S. T. Filandrinos, R. C. Dunn, R. Fisk, P. K. Geyer, and C.-t. Wu. 1999. An analysis of transvection at the yellow locus of Drosophila melanogaster. Genetics 151: 633-651.

J. R. Morris, J.-l. Chen, P. K. Geyer, and C.-t. Wu. 1998. Two modes of transvection: enhancer action in trans and bypass of a chromatin insulator in cis. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 95: 10740-10745.

* Brandeis undergraduate

Last review: August 11, 2014


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