Ben Black

About Ben:

Following undergraduate studies at Carleton College, Ben Black did a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Virginia on pathways for nuclear protein export in the lab of Bryce Paschal. After a four-year postdoctoral fellowship with Don Cleveland at UCSD in the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Ben started his own group at UPenn to continue the work he had started in the area of chromosome biology. He is the Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation Professor of Biochemistry & Biophysics. Perhaps his best known work as an independent investigator is uncovering the physical basis for how nucleosomes containing the histone variant, CENP-A, epigenetically mark centromere location on the chromosome; and further, for helping elucidate how this nucleosome can seed new centromere assembly and maintain centromere location through a cell cycle-coupled self-propagation mechanism ultimately required to guide faithful chromosome inheritance. At UPenn, Ben has also taught in or co-directed more than a dozen different courses in the Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) programs, School of Arts & Sciences, and Medical School. He has served on NIH review panels and as a reviewer for many national and international funding agencies. He is an Associate Editor of Science Advances and the Biochemical Journal, on the editorial board of Molecular & Cellular Biology and Cells, and serves as a reviewer for >25 scientific journals, including Nature, Science, and PNAS. He has given invited lectures at numerous universities and meetings in the USA and in more than a dozen foreign countries. He has been recognized for his work with a fellowship from the American Cancer Society, a Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar Award, the Michael S. Brown New Investigator Award, the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation Initiative Award, and the inaugural Perelman School of Medicine Dean’s Innovation Award. Ben enjoys spending his free time with wife Emily and sons Zachary and Henry.

Contributions to Science

Centromere structural biochemistry. The work in the Black Lab in this area is focused on understanding the physical nature of the epigenetic information generated by the incorporation of the histone H3 variant, CENP-A into chromatin. How do the DNA and proteins work together to form a chromatin domain that is distinguished from the rest of the chromosome as the site to build a mitotic kinetochore and as the site for persistent centromere maintenance through cell divisions? The Black Lab’s crystal structure of CENP-A, described in Sekulic et al., 2010 was the first of this protein from any species, in any context, and represents a landmark study in the centromere field. More recently the Black Lab devised a ChIP-seq-based strategy to probe centromeric chromatin architecture at very high-resolution with a study (Hasson et al., 2013) that resolved a longstanding conflict regarding the nature of human centromeric nucleosomes. The Black Lab also combined a battery of biophysical approaches alongside cell-based functional assays to identify CENP-C as an essential collaborator in maintaining centromere identity in Falk et al., 2015. In the course of these studies, the Black Lab found that CENP-C surprisingly alters the shape and the dynamics of the CENP-A nucleosome when it binds, revealing a novel mode of regulation that nucleosome-binding proteins can bring to bear on chromatin.

  • Allu, P.K., Dawicki-McKenna, J.M., Van Eeuwen, T., Slavin, M., Braitbard, M., Xu, C., Kalisman, N., Murakami, K., and E. Black*. 2019. Structure of the human core centromeric nucleosome complex. Curr. Biol., 29:2625-2639. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC6702948]
  • Guo, L.Y., P.K. Allu, L. Zandarashvili, K.L. McKinley, N. Sekulic, J.M. Dawicki-McKenna, D. Fachinetti, G.A. Logsdon, R.M. Jamiolkowski, D.W. Cleveland, I.M. Cheeseman, and B.E. Black*. 2017. Centromeres are maintained by fastening CENP-A to DNA and directing an arginine anchor-dependent nucleosome structural transition. Nat. Commun., 8:15775. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC5472775]
  • Falk, S.J., L.Y. Guo, N. Sekulic, E.M. Smoak, T. Mani, G.A. Logsdon, K. Gupta, L.E.T. Jansen, G.D. Van Duyne, S.A. Vinogradov, M.A. Lampson, and B.E. Black*. 2015. CENP-C reshapes and stabilizes CENP-A nucleosomes at the centromere. Science, 348:699-703. (*corresponding author; contributed equally) [PMCID: in progress]
  • Hasson, D., T. Panchenko, K.J. Salimian, M.U. Salman, N. Sekulic, A. Alonso, P.E. Warburton, and B.E.  Black*. 2013. The octamer is the major form of CENP-A nucleosomes at human centromeres. Nat. Struct. Mol. Biol., 20:687-695. (*corresponding author; contributed equally and listed in alphabetical order) [PMCID: PMC3760417]
  • Sekulic, N., E.A. Bassett, D.J. Rogers, and B.E. Black*. 2010. The structure of (CENP-A—H4)2 reveals physical features that mark centromeres. Nature, 467:347-351. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC2946842]

Centromere chromatin assembly. Given the importance of CENP-A in defining the properties of centromeric nucleosomes, one key question in chromatin biology and epigenetics is that of how histone variants (including CENP-A) are delivered to – and incorporated into – the correct nucleosomes at appropriate locations, and how they are ‘sorted’ from each other by so-called histone chaperones. Starting with the discovery of the cis-acting element within CENP-A that targets it to centromeres (which he called the CENP-A targeting domain, CATD), Dr. Black has contributed highly to the understanding of these processes. In a paper (Bassett et al., 2012), the Black Lab identified the precise mode of recognition of CENP-A by HJURP using a very effective combination of cell-based functional assays, conventional biochemistry, and high-resolution biophysical approaches. Using these data, the Black Lab formulated a new model for centromere assembly in which HJURP stabilizes the histone fold domains of both CENP-A and its partner histone H4 for a substantial portion of the cell cycle prior to mediating chromatin assembly at the centromere. The Black Lab has also used a new approach to establish a new functional centromere at an ectopic locus to understand the relationship between the elements that direct new CENP-A chromatin assembly and the first steps in centromere establishment.

  • Logsdon, G.L., C.W. Gambogi, M.A. Liskovykh, E.J. Barrey, V. Larionov, K.H. Miga, P. Heun, and E. Black*. 2019. Human artificial chromosomes that bypass centromeric DNA. Cell, 178:624-639. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC6657561]
  • Logsdon, G.L., E. Barrey, E.A. Bassett, J.E. DeNizio, L.Y. Guo, T. Panchenko, J.M. Dawicki-McKenna, P. Heun, and B.E. Black*. 2015. Both tails and the centromere targeting domain of CENP-A are required for centromere establishment. J. Cell Biol., 208:521-531. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC4347640]
  • Bassett, E.A., J. DeNizio, M.C. Barnhart-Dailey, T. Panchenko, N. Sekulic, D.J. Rogers, D.R. Foltz, and B.E. Black*. 2012. HJURP uses distinct CENP-A surfaces to recognize and to stabilize CENP-A/ histone H4 for centromere assembly. Dev. Cell, 22: 749-762. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC3353549]
  • Black, B.E.*, and D.W. Cleveland*. 2011. Epigenetic centromere propagation and the nature of CENP-A nucleosomes. Cell, 144:471-479. (*corresponding authors) [PMCID: PMC3061232]
  • Foltz, D.R., L.E.T. Jansen, A.O. Bailey, J.R. Yates III, E.A. Bassett, S. Wood, B.E. Black, and D.W. Cleveland. 2009. Centromere specific assembly of CENP-A nucleosomes is mediated by HJURP. Cell, 137:472-484. [PMCID: PMC2747366]

Aurora B-mediated mitotic error correction. While studying patient-derived cells harboring neocentromeres, the Black Lab made the observation that the Aurora B kinase is highly enriched at chromosomes that have spindle attachment errors. This appears to be quite a fundamental observation. Black and colleagues found this to be a common feature of healthy, diploid cells, but one that is absent from the aneuploid, tumor-derived cells typically used for mammalian mitosis research. Further investigation revealed dynamic modulation of Aurora B levels at each centromere in a chromosome autonomous fashion that greatly expands the dynamic range of this kinase in phosphorylating kinetochore substrates. It appears that this feedback leads to highly efficient mitotic error correction; a discovery that greatly impacts the understanding of Aurora B function.

  • Zaystev, A.V., D. Sagura-Peña, M. Godzi, A. Calderon, E.R. Ballister, R. Stamatov, A.M. Mayo, L. Peterson, B.E. Black, F.L. Ataullakhanov, M.A. Lampson, E.L. Grishchuk. 2016. Bistability of a coupled Aurora B kinase-phosphatase system in cell division. Elife, 5:e10644. [PMCID: PMC4798973]
  • Wood, T. Panchenko, M.A. Lampson*, and B.E. Black*. 2011. Feedback control in sensing chromosome biorientation by the Aurora B kinase. Curr. Biol., 21:1158-1165. (*corresponding authors) [PMCID: PMC3156581]
  • Bassett, E.A., S. Wood, K.J. Salimian, S. Ajith, D.R. Foltz, and B.E. Black*. 2010. Epigenetic centromere specification directs Aurora B accumulation but is insufficient to efficiently correct mitotic errors. J. Cell Biol., 190:177-185. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC2930274]

Hydrogen/deuterium exchange-mass spectrometry (HXMS) with chromatin proteins. The Black Lab has emerged as the world leader in applying HXMS to chromatin-associated proteins. This powerful approach probes structure and dynamics in solution, and is a strong complement to more conventional structural biology techniques. The Black Lab has used it successfully to gain insight into a diverse set of chromatin assembly complexes and natively unstructured nucleosomal DNA binding proteins, gaining insight into complexes that have been recalcitrant to other standard approaches (e.g. crystallography and NMR). Along the way the Black Lab has advanced HXMS technology and dispelled the earlier misconceptions that the approach is low-resolution (it is not, and the Black Lab has achieved near amino acid resolution of HX behavior on several proteins) and merely a probe of what happens on the surfaces of proteins (it is not, and the Black Lab has gained important insight into the core of individual proteins and proteins within large multi-subunit complexes).

  • Zandarashvili, L., M.F. Langelier, U.K. Velagapudi, M.A. Hancock, J.D. Steffen, R. Billur, Z.M. Hannan, A.J. Wicks, D.B. Krastev, S.J. Pettitt, C.J. Lord, T.T. Talele, J.M. Pascal*, and E. Black*. 2020. Structural basis for allosteric PARP-1 retention on DNA breaks. Science, 368:eaax6367. (*corresponding authors; contributed equally) [PMCID: in progress]
  • Langelier, M.F., L. Zandarashvili, P.M. Aguiar, B.E. Black*, and J.M. Pascal*. 2018. NAD+ analog reveals PARP-1 substrate-blocking mechanism and allosteric communication from catalytic center to DNA-binding domains. Nat. Commun., 9:844. (*corresponding authors) [PMCID: PMC5829251]
  • Dawicki-McKenna, J.M., M.F. Langelier, J.E. DeNizio, A.A. Riccio, C.D. Cao, K.R. Karch, M. McCauley, J.D. Steffen, B.E. Black*, and J.M. Pascal*. 2015. PARP-1 activation requires local unfolding of an autoinhibitory domain. Mol. Cell, 60:755-768. (*corresponding author; contributed equally) [PMCID: PMC4712911]
  • DeNizio, J., S.J. Elsässer, and B.E. Black*. 2014. DAXX co-folds with H3.3/H4 using high local stability conferred by the H3.3 variant recognition residues. Nucleic Acids Res., 42:4318-4331. (*corresponding author) [PMCID: PMC3985662]
  • Black, B.E., D.R. Foltz, S. Chakravarthy, K. Luger, V.L. Woods Jr., and D.W. Cleveland. 2004. Structural determinants for generating centromeric chromatin. Nature 430:578-582.

Centromere inheritance through the mammalian germline. This is a relatively recent research direction in my group, and we are already making headway into understanding how the epigenetic centromere mark represented by nucleosomes containing CENP-A is successfully transmitted through the male and female germlines. Both male and female germlines present major challenges to the centromere, and we are using mouse as a model system to understand how this faithfully occurs.

  • Lampson, M.A.*, and B.E. Black*. 2018. Cellular and molecular mechanisms of centromere drive. Cold Spring Harb. Symp. Quant. Biol., online ahead of print. (*corresponding authors)
  • Das, A., E.M. Smoak, R. Linares-Saldana, M.A. Lampson*, and B.E. Black*. 2017. Centromere inheritance through the germline. Chromosoma, 126:595-604. (*corresponding authors) [PMCID: PMC5693723]
  • Iwata-Otsubo, A., J.M. Dawicki-McKenna, T. Akera, S.J. Falk, L. Chmátal, K. Yang, B.A. Sullivan, R.M. Schultz, M.A. Lampson*, and B.E. Black*. 2017. Expanded satellite repeats amplify a discrete CENP-A nucleosome assembly site on chromosomes that drive in female meiosis. Curr. Biol., 27:2365-2373. (*corresponding authors; contributed equally) [PMCID: PMC5567862]
  • Smoak, E.M., P. Stein, R.M. Schultz, M.A. Lampson*, and B.E. Black*. 2016. Long-term retention of CENP-A nucleosomes in mammalian oocytes underpins transgenerational inheritance of centromere identity. Curr. Biol., 26:1110-1116. (*corresponding authors) [PMCID: PMC4846481]