Michael Grunstein

Dear Colleagues,

It is with profound sorrow that we share the news of the passing of Michael Grunstein, a distinguished professor, valued colleague, and pioneering scientist in the field of chromatin and epigenetics. After a nearly 20-year battle, he succumbed to complications from Parkinson’s disease in the early morning of February 18, 2024, with his family by his side at home.

Michael was born in Romania in 1946 into a family of Holocaust survivors. After immigrating to Canada, he obtained a B.Sc. in Genetics and Chemistry from McGill University, and a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Animal Genetics. Michael then moved to Stanford for postdoctoral research, first with Dr. Larry Kedes where he applied insights from rDNA to investigations of histone mRNA, and later with Dr. David Hogness. It was in the Hogness lab that Michael developed colony hybridization, a powerful method known as a “Grunstein” that revolutionized gene mapping and chromosome isolation.

Upon joining UCLA in July 1975, Michael chose to study histones, driven by his intrigue with DNA packaging proteins and a deliberate choice to steer clear of what he perceived as the crowded field of transcription regulation research. Initially working with sea urchins, a chance confluence of events, including the destruction of the sea urchin population in the Gulf of California by Hurricane Liza in 1976, prompted him to switch to budding yeast as his model organism. Utilizing yeast genetics, the Grunstein lab established that histones were not merely packaging proteins for DNA but contribute to regulation of gene expression, laying the foundation for the study of epigenetics in biology and disease. 

Michael served as Chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry from 2007 to 2010 and retired from UCLA on June 29, 2016.

Reflecting on Michael’s journey, we can discern the key attributes that lead to scientific breakthroughs. Curiosity led him to find fascination in what many considered mundane—packaging proteins. Creativity guided him to explore questions overlooked by others. Courage was evident in his consequential pivot from sea urchins to a then-emerging model organism—the budding yeast. Willingness to follow nature and experimental results allowed him to perceive that packaging proteins play important roles in gene regulation. Resolve and luck, enabled him to make the best of what was available to him, culminating in seminal contributions to science.

Michael received widespread acclaim for his groundbreaking work, earning him election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, and many awards including the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, and the Albany Prize. He shared these honors with C. David Allis, who credited Michael's early work as the inspiration for his own entry into the field of epigenetics. Michael's success was made possible by the contributions of a talented group of students and postdoctoral fellows. Additionally, he was fortunate to have the tireless support of his spouse, Dr. Judith (Judy) Grunstein, who played a crucial role both within and outside the laboratory setting. 

Beyond his scientific endeavors, Michael had a passionate interest in gardening. At its peak, his garden was yielding an impressive 3 tons of avocados annually, in addition to a bountiful variety of other fruits and vegetables.

Michael leaves behind his loving wife Judy, their daughter Davina, their son Jeremy and daughter-in-law Elisa, and four grandchildren: Jasper, Rowan, Emilia and Josie. Our thoughts are with the Grunstein family during this difficult time, and we offer them our deepest sympathies and support.

We invite you to listen to Michael’s Lasker speech in which he describes his contributions to science and offers personal reflections on his career: https://vimeo.com/291819942.


Siavash K. Kurdistani, MD 
Professor and Chair 
Department of Biological Chemistry


J. (Quim) Madrenas, MD, PhD
Vice Dean for Faculty