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New & Noteworthy

New and improved Locus Summary pages

October 13, 2014

We are pleased to announce that the redesign of our gene-specific pages, which has been ongoing over the past year, is now complete with the release of the reworked Locus Summary page. The page contains all of the information on the previous Locus Summary page, and has a more modern look and feel. Note that the order and organization of the sections has changed, and the order of the tabs across the top of the page has changed as well. New elements on the page include a navigation bar on the left to take you to the different sections of the page, a redesigned map showing genomic context in the sequence section, and a new interactive histogram summarizing expression data. Biochemical pathway information now appears in its own section (see an example), and we have added a History section to replace the previous Locus History tab. If there are no data of a particular type (for example, Pathways), then that section is absent from the page.

Please explore this new page and send us your feedback.

Yeast Gets By With a Little Help From its Friends

October 9, 2014

If you spend any time looking at social media, you’ve seen the viral videos about interspecies “friendships” – heartwarming scenes of elephants playing with dogs, or lions cuddling with antelopes. These animal relationships strike a chord with most people. Maybe they make us feel there’s hope for harmony within the human species, if such different creatures can get along with each other.

Yeast and bacteria may not be this cute, but they too can enjoy a mutually beneficial friendship.

It may not give you quite as warm and fuzzy a feeling, but in a recent Cell paper, Jarosz and colleagues have shown that yeast and bacteria enjoy a friendship too.  However, these microbes have taken it a step further than the larger animals.

Not only do the yeast and bacteria get something good out of the relationship, but the yeast also get a permanent change that they can pass down to their daughters. It is as if being friends with an elephant could give a dog (and her puppies!) the ability to survive on grasses and fruit.

Like koalas with their eucalyptus leaves and pandas with their bamboo, yeast is a nutritional specialist. It is very good at consuming glucose, and will eat nothing else if glucose is available. All the genes necessary to metabolize other carbon sources are tightly turned off in the presence of glucose, a phenomenon termed glucose repression.

As Jarosz and coworkers studied this glucose repression, they stumbled upon the finding that contaminating bacteria could short circuit this process in yeast.  In other words, when yeast and these bacteria grew together, the yeast gained the ability to metabolize other carbon sources in the presence of glucose!  And even more surprisingly, that trait was passed on to the yeast’s future generations.

Here’s how this discovery unfolded.  The authors had plated yeast on medium containing glycerol as a carbon source, plus a small amount of glucosamine, which is a nonmetabolizable glucose analog. Wild-type cells cannot grow on this medium because the presence of the glucose analog makes it seem like glucose is present, causing glucose repression and preventing utilization of the glycerol.

However, there happened to be a contaminating bacterial colony on one plate, and the yeast cells immediately around this colony were able to grow on the glycerol + glucosamine medium.  When those yeast cells were re-streaked onto a fresh glycerol + glucosamine plate, with no bacteria present, they were still able to grow: they had undergone a heritable change. The ability to utilize glycerol in the presence of glucosamine was stably inherited for many generations, even without any selective pressure.

Although the first observation was serendipitous, this proved not to be an isolated phenomenon. The researchers were able not only to reconfirm it, but also to show that it could happen in 15 diverse S. cerevisiae strains. They identified the original bacterial contaminant as Staphylococcus hominis, but showed that some other bacterial species could also give yeast the ability to bypass glucose repression.

This group had previously found a way that yeast could become a nutritional generalist: by acquiring the [GAR+] prion. Prions are proteins that take on an altered conformation and can be inherited from generation to generation.  They usually confer certain phenotypes; one of the best known is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

Luckily for the yeast, the [GAR+] prion is not nearly so devastating. Instead of a deteriorating brain, S. cerevisiae cells carrying the [GAR+] prion can grow on multiple carbon sources even in the presence of glucose.

Since this phenotype was suspiciously similar to that of the yeast that had been exposed to bacteria, Jarosz and colleagues tested them for the presence of the [GAR+] prion, and found by several different criteria that the cells had indeed acquired it. They looked to see if the yeast got other prions as well, but found that bacterial contact specifically induced only the [GAR+] prion.

The next step was to find out how the bacteria were communicating with the yeast.  Since active extracts could be boiled, frozen and thawed, digested with RNAse, DNAse, or proteases, or filtered through a 3 kDa filter without losing activity, the signaling molecule(s) was probably small.  But the researchers ended up with a complex mixture of small molecules, and more work will be needed to find which compound(s) are responsible for this effect.

In the case of animal friendships, it’s believable that intelligent animals are getting some emotional reward from their relationships (If you don’t believe it, the story of Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog in the video below may convince you!). We can’t exactly invoke this for microbes, so why would these organisms have evolved to affect each other in this way?  It seems there must be a “reward” of some kind.

The benefit to yeast cells from their bacterial friendship is that when they carry the [GAR+] prion, they can grow much better in mixed carbon sources and have better viability during aging.

Conversely, the bacteria benefit because [GAR+] yeast cells produce less ethanol than do cells without the prion. This makes a better environment for bacteria to grow, since too much ethanol is toxic. Interestingly, although the bacterial species that were the best inducers of [GAR+] are not phylogenetically closely related to each other, several of them share an ecological niche. They are often found in arrested wine fermentations, which are unsuccessful fermentations in which the yeast stop growing and bacteria take over.

So interspecies “friendships” can have more profound effects than just tugging at the heartstrings of viewers.  One example is the cat that acts as the eyes for that blind dog.  Another is this case, where bacteria can do yeast some permanent good and make a more hospitable environment for themselves in the process.

And this study reminds scientists of two important things. First, that the laboratory environment cannot tell us everything about biology. How often do yeast cells in nature grow as a monoculture on pure glucose, anyway?  And second, that sometimes accidental occurrences in the laboratory, in this case “contamination,” can broaden our findings…if we pay attention to them.  Just ask Alexander Fleming!

by Maria Costanzo, Ph.D., Senior Biocurator, SGD

Redesigned Expression pages

October 6, 2014

The Expression pages have been redesigned and now include a clickable histogram depicting conditions and datasets in which the gene of interest is up- or down-regulated. Expression data are derived from records contained in the Gene Expression Omnibus, and datasets are assigned one or more categories to facilitate grouping, filtering and browsing. Short descriptions of the focus of each experiment are also provided. The PCL files generated for each dataset are used to populate the expression analysis tool SPELL. Also included on the pages are network diagrams which display genes that share expression profiles. The Expression pages provide seamless access to the SPELL tool at SGD, as well as external resources such as Cyclebase, GermOnline, YMGV and FuncBase.

Please explore these new pages, accessible via the Expression tab on your favorite Locus Summary page, and send us your feedback.

Not too long, not too short

October 2, 2014

Just like Justin Bieber’s hair, cells make sure telomeres are always the exact right length. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever noticed that the length of your hair is just right for a small window of time? Too short, and you feel a little exposed – too long, and it gets in your face.

Like your hair, the telomeres at the ends of your chromosomes have a length that is just right for them (and you). Telomeres are non-coding sequences of DNA added to the ends of chromosomes that protect the important DNA there from being lost. Telomeres that are too long may contribute to cancer; while telomeres that are too short are associated with aging.

It makes sense, then, that telomere length should be carefully regulated (just as, in a perfect world, you might want to keep your hair the perfect length all the time). The enzyme that adds the non-coding DNA sequences to the end of chromosomes, telomerase, is composed of highly conserved subunits. In yeast, this enzyme is a quaternary complex composed of the regulatory subunits Est1 and Est3, the catalytic subunit Est2, and the RNA template component, TLC1.

Previously, it was thought that telomerase was primed for action whenever it was needed in the cell. But this does not seem to be the case.

In a recent publication in Genes & Development, Tucey et al. showed that, in addition to the active quaternary telomerase complex, two subcomplexes – a preassembly complex and a disassembled complex – were also present in the cell. Each of these subcomplexes lacked one subunit compared with the active telomerase, and the missing subunit was different for each subcomplex.

So, how did the authors discover these subcomplexes? Using a special immunoprecipitation protocol, one of the first things the researchers noticed was that Est1, Est2, and the TLC1 RNA were associated with each other throughout G1 and S phase, but that Est3 was missing from the complex during G1 phase and present only at very low levels throughout S phase. They called this Est1-TLC1-Est2 complex the “preassembly complex.”

In fact, Est3 was only appreciably associated with the preassembly complex during G2/M and late in the cell cycle. And, even then, only 25% of the preassembly complex was associated with Est3 to form the active quaternary complex. So the presence of the active holoenzyme was regulated with respect to the cell cycle.

Since Est3 was not always bound to the preassembly complex, the authors set out to determine what was required for Est3 binding. They found that neither Est1 nor Est2 could bind Est3 if it was unable to bind TLC1 RNA. Thus, the RNA component of the presassembly complex was necessary for its two other subunits to form an active telomerase by binding to Est3.

In addition, they determined that both Est1 and Est2 contained binding surfaces for Est3, and that both of these surfaces were required for the full association of Est3 with the preassembly complex. So Est3 interacts directly with each of the other protein subunits to form the active telomerase.

There was still one more question that intrigued Tucey and coworkers – Est3 appeared to exist in excess compared with the other subunits, so why did it have such limited association with the rest of the telomerase subunits? This suggested some sort of inhibitory regulation of Est3.

Indeed, the authors uncovered an Est3 mutant, Est3-S113Y, which appeared to have lost the ability to be inhibited. This mutant exhibited elongated telomeres and increased association with telomerase, and was associated with the preassembly complex in G1 phase rather than being restricted to late in the cell cycle. This mutation lies directly adjacent to Est3’s binding domain, leading the authors to conclude that Est3 is regulated by a “toggle switch” that specifies whether or not it can bind to the preassembly complex.

As mentioned previously, the authors also saw evidence of a second subcomplex during their studies. When they drilled down on the components, they identified a “disassembly complex” that lacks only Est2, in contrast to the preassembly complex that lacks Est3. They determined that this subcomplex is inactive and requires the prior formation of the quaternary complex since its formation requires Est2 binding to TLC1, just as is observed for the preassembly complex.

Given the cell’s desire to have telomeres that aren’t too long and aren’t too short, it makes sense that the enzyme that lengthens them is regulated. There is a toggle switch that signals formation of the active complex and, once formed, the active complex is transient, dissociating its catalytic subunit to become inactive. This regulation ensures that telomerase is active only late in the cell cycle. Just as you might work to keep your hair just the right length, the cell regulates telomerase to keep the lengths of telomeres from getting out of control.

by Selina Dwight, Ph.D., Senior Biocurator, SGD

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