Jeff McKnight, a molecular biologist at the University of Oregon interested in how cells package and maintain their DNA, died on October 4 after a brief battle with lymphoma that he documented on social media for thousands of his followers.
“He had this humility and vulnerability about him that was really endearing,” David Garcia, a molecular biologist at the University of Oregon and colleague of McKnight, tells The Scientist. “And like a lot of scientists, he just had this natural curiosity about life and how things work. He was really passionate about what he did, and he worked really hard.”
McKnight was well-known in his field for his work studying the structure of chromatin—a complex made up of strands of DNA wrapped around cores of proteins called histones—that controls when and how DNA can be accessed for replication and gene expression. Dozens of diseases involve some level of chromatin disruption, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and some cancers that modify the chromatin to proliferate out of control.
When he joined the University of Oregon as a faculty member in 2016, McKnight was one of the only researchers in the world capable of intentionally manipulating chromatin structure, a technique he was honing with the intent of developing treatments for disease. “The real dream is that this strategy can one day be applied in humans to help correct or turn off some of the mechanisms that lead to cancer progression,” McKnight said in a 2016 article announcing his hiring.
Born in New Jersey in 1984, McKnight attended Bucknell University in Pennsylvania for his undergraduate, where he majored in biochemistry. On his LinkedIn profile, McKnight acknowledged his early exposure in synthetic chemistry for instilling in him “a mechanism centered view that I carried through my molecular biology/biochemistry graduate experience.”
McKnight next completed a PhD at Johns Hopkins University, where he first began studying the molecular underpinnings of chromatin. His thesis research focused on the domains of the chromatin remodeling gene CHD1. CHD genes alter gene expression by modifying chromatin structure, opening the chromatin up for access by transcriptional machinery in the cell, and disruptions in these genes have been implicated in diseases such as schizophrenia and cancer.
Building on his dissertation research and his desire to develop treatments in humans, McKnight accepted a postdoc as a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle in 2012. There, he studied how epigenetic changes can modify the structure of chromatin, and began trying to intentionally rearrange chromatin in the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
When he arrived at the University of Oregon, McKnight was the first of a cluster of hires for the new Center for Genome Function, chosen from among more than 250 applicants. “Jeffrey McKnight represents exactly the kind of talent we are seeking to attract,” university provost Scott Coltrane said in the article announcing McKnight’s hiring. Eric Selker, the hiring coordinator, shared in the same piece, “with Jeff, there was no arguing necessary, there was no twisting of arms; It was, ‘Yes, get this guy.’”
Much of his work in the last several years sought to answer fundamental biological questions about chromatin, and he received grant money for the National Institutes of Health to support his research. Some of his more recent work has focused on better understanding the targeted ability of chromatin remodeling proteins to home in on certain sequences with high specificity, and McKnight had also continued his in his efforts to engineer these proteins. “His contributions were really important in the short amount of time that he had running his own lab,” Garcia tells The Scientist.
McKnight was diagnosed with hepatosplenic T cell lymphoma in March of this year, and through the course of his illness, he spoke openly about his treatment, difficulties with his insurance, and his mental and physical outlook from day to day.
Confirmed. Doc said maybe a week or so left. In ER for comfort care. Thank you all for battling with me.— McKnight Lab (@McKnightLab_UO) October 2, 2020
In a GoFundMe campaign set up by McKnight, he shared that his wife Laura McKnight, a fellow researcher and manager of the McKnight lab, might lose her job. She has since shared that the lab plans to continue running under a new principal investigator.
His chronicling of his disease was met with an outpouring of support. “Thank you for sharing something so unknown with the world. I’ve never met you, but I’m moved by your existing. Peace to you and your family,” Bianca Jones Marlin, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, said in response to his final message, which received almost 2,000 comments.
McKnight is survived by his wife Laura and his daughter Katherine, who turned eight today.