Assistant Professor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Research Interests: Somatic Stem Cells and Aging, Genetic Mechanisms of Stem Cell Maintenance, Therapeutic Approaches to Tissue Rejuvenation, Mouse Models of Hair Graying, Melanocyte Stem Cells and Pigmentation

Teaching and Professional Interests: Cell Biology (BY330/530), Histology (BY327/527), Graduate Colloquium in Cell Biology (BY685/785), Graduate Colloquium in the Biology of Aging (BY618/718); Student Mentoring and Professional Development, UAB Policy and Procedure, Science for the Public (check out her Three-Minute Talk from when she was a postdoc at NHGRI)

Office Hours: By appointment


  • B.S., University of California, Davis, Genetics with a minor in English
  • Ph.D., University of California, Davis, Cell and Developmental Biology
  • Postdoctoral/Research Fellow, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

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 questions, “Why do we age the way we do?”, and “What can we do about it?!”

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. At the NHGRI she found footing in the world of biomedical research and practiced applying genetic and genomic approaches to exploit mouse models of hair graying to study mechanisms of somatic stem cell maintenance. 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. This award supported Dr. Harris’ transition to her current faculty position within the Department of Biology at UAB. Check out her lab’s current research interests below.

Research Interests

The Harris Lab at UAB, which Dr. Harris fondly refers to as Team Hair-Us, focuses on using acute and age-related mouse models of hair graying for the unbiased discovery of perturbations that influence stem cell regulation and life-long tissue maintenance. Through the investigation of these models, they have identified interesting roles for innate immunity (Harris et al. 2018), immune privilege and stem cell quiescence (manuscript in preparation with graduate student Joseph Palmer), and genetic background (Fialkokwski et al. 2019) in melanocyte stem cell maintenance and hair pigmentation. Through collaborations at UAB they have also employed this model to address the role of other participants in stem cell maintenance, including mitochondrial DNA (Villavicencio et al. 2020) and neuropeptides. Through these studies they have improved on Dr. Harris’ previous techniques to evaluate melanocyte stem cells and other skin cells using histology, flow cytometry, in vitro culture of primary cells, hair plucking methods for controlled stem cell activation, RNAseq, and soon, evaluation at the single cell level.

There is still much to learn about how melanocyte stem cells coordinate within the skin to promote the regeneration of the pigment system throughout a lifetime. However, they have successfully used this model to identify therapeutics targeted towards the rejuvenation of this stem cell population, particularly in situ (Anderson et al. 2020). More broadly, this stem cell system is regulated and affected by age in ways that are common to other stem cell systems and they are eager to evaluate the extent to which our discoveries can be used to promote healthy aging in a variety of regenerative tissues.

Select Publications

Full Bibliography

  1. Villavicencio, K.M., Ahmed, N., Harris, M.L., Singh, K.K., 2020 Mitochondrial DNA-depleter mouse as a model to study human pigmentary skin disorders. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research n/a. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcmr.12921
  2. Anderson, Z.T.*, Palmer, J.W.*, Idris, M.I., Villavicencio, K.M., Le, G., Cowart, J., Weinstein, D.E., Harris, M.L., 2020 Topical RT1640 treatment effectively reverses gray hair and stem cell loss in a mouse model of radiation-induced canities. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research 2020 https://doi.org/10.1111/pcmr.12913 *Co-first authors
  3. Fialkowski, A.C., Levy, D.J., Watkins-Chow, D.E., Palmer, J.W., Darji, R., Tiwari, H.K., Pavan, W.J., Harris, M.L., 2019. Identification of Gene Variants Associated with Melanocyte Stem Cell Differentiation in Mice Predisposed for Hair Graying. G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics g3.200965.2018. https://doi.org/10.1534/g3.118.200965
  4. Li, C.-Y., Hofmann, H.A., Harris, M.L., Earley, R.L., 2018. Real or fake? Natural and artificial social stimuli elicit divergent behavioural and neural responses in mangrove rivulus, Kryptolebias marmoratus. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 285, 20181610. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.1610
  5. Harris, M.L., Fufa, T.D., Palmer, J.W., Joshi, S.S., Larson, D.M., Incao, A., Gildea, D.E., Trivedi, N.S., Lee, A.N., Day, C.-P., Michael, H.T., Hornyak, T.J., Merlino, G., Program, N.C.S., Pavan, W.J., 2018. A direct link between MITF, innate immunity, and hair graying. PLOS Biology 16, e2003648. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003648
  6. Ruiz, R., Jahid, S., Harris, M., Marzese, D.M., Espitia, F., Vasudeva, P., Chen, C.-F., de Feraudy, S., Wu, J., Gillen, D.L., Krasieva, T.B., Tromberg, B.J., Pavan, W.J., Hoon, D.S., Ganesan, A.K., 2017. The RhoJ-BAD signaling network: An Achilles’ heel for BRAF mutant melanomas. PLoS Genet. 13, e1006913. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1006913
  7. Fufa, T.D., Harris, M.L., Watkins-Chow, D.E., Levy, D., Gorkin, D.U., Gildea, D.E., Song, L., Safi, A., Crawford, G.E., Sviderskaya, E.V., Bennett, D.C., Mccallion, A.S., Loftus, S.K., Pavan, W.J., 2015. Genomic analysis reveals distinct mechanisms and functional classes of SOX10-regulated genes in melanocytes. Hum Mol Genet 24, 5433–5450. https://doi.org/10.1093/hmg/ddv267
  8. Harris, M.L., Levy, D.J., Watkins-Chow, D.E., Pavan, W.J., 2015. Ectopic differentiation of melanocyte stem cells is influenced by genetic background. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. 28, 223–228. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcmr.12344
  9. Harris, M.L., Pavan, W.J., 2013. Postnatal lineage mapping of follicular melanocytes with the Tyr::CreER T 2 transgene. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research 26, 269–274. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcmr.12048
  10. Harris, M.L., Buac, K., Shakhova, O., Hakami, R.M., Wegner, M., Sommer, L., Pavan, W.J., 2013. A Dual Role for SOX10 in the Maintenance of the Postnatal Melanocyte Lineage and the Differentiation of Melanocyte Stem Cell Progenitors. PLoS Genetics 9, e1003644. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1003644
  11. Harris, M.L., Baxter, L.L., Loftus, S.K., Pavan, W.J., 2010. Sox proteins in melanocyte development and melanoma: Sox proteins and melanocytes. Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research 23, 496–513. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-148X.2010.00711.x
  12. Kelsh, R.N., Harris, M.L., Colanesi, S., Erickson, C.A., 2009. Stripes and belly-spots—A review of pigment cell morphogenesis in vertebrates. Seminars in Cell & Developmental Biology 20, 90–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.semcdb.2008.10.001
  13. Harris, M.L., Hall, R., Erickson, C.A., 2008. Directing pathfinding along the dorsolateral path - the role of EDNRB2 and EphB2 in overcoming inhibition. Development 135, 4113–4122. https://doi.org/10.1242/dev.023119
  14. Harris, M.L., Erickson, C.A., 2007. Lineage specification in neural crest cell pathfinding. Developmental Dynamics 236, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/dvdy.20919
  15. Toonen, R.J., Locke, M., Grosberg, R., 2004. Isolation and characterization of polymorphic microsatellite loci from the Dungeness crab Cancer magister. Molecular Ecology Notes 4, 30–32. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1471-8286.2003.00562.x
  16. Locke, M.M., Penedo, M.C.T., Bricker, S.J., Millon, L.V., Murray, J.D., 2002. Linkage of the grey coat colour locus to microsatellites on horse chromosome 25. Animal genetics 33, 329–337.
  17. Locke, M.M., Ruth, L.S., Millon, L.V., Penedo, M.C.T., Murray, J.D., Bowling, A.T., 2001. The cream dilution gene, responsible for the palomino and buckskin coat colours, maps to horse chromosome 21. Animal genetics 32, 340–343.