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Lots of Ways to Get to the Same Place

November 13, 2014

 

An advantage of taking one route to the post office might be that you get to see the elephant topiary in front of the zoo. For a yeast cell, taking a roundabout route to a wild-type phenotype might confer a big advantage in a different environment. Image from Wikimedia Commons

How Bad Mutations Can Help Yeast Thrive in New Environments:

If you’ve ever asked for directions from more than one person, you know there are many ways to get to the same place. But not all routes are created equal. You might be trying to get to the post office, but on some routes you’ll pass by the zoo, while on others you might pass the museum or the bus station.

Turns out that something like this may be happening with individuals in a population too. Each may be well adapted for its environment, but each may have arrived there in different ways. And although they may seem similar, they might actually be more different than they look on the surface.

In a new study in PLOS biology, Szamecz and coworkers show that a lot of these different routes to the same place happen in yeast because of bad mutations. They found that when a yeast gets a deleterious mutation, it is sometimes able to mutate its way back to being competitive with wild type again. But the evolved strain is genetically distinct from the original wild type strain. Similar phenotype, distinct genotype.

And this isn’t just an interesting academic exercise either. As any biologist knows, bad mutations are much more common than are good ones. This means that populations may often be evolving to overcome the effects of these bad mutations. This process may help to explain the wide range of diverse genotypes seen in any wild population. 

The authors started out by focusing on 187 yeast strains in which a single gene had been deleted. Each strain grew more poorly than wild type under the tested conditions.

They then took 4 replicates of each mutant along with the wild type strain and grew them for 400 or so generations. They looked for strains that had evolved to overcome the growth defect caused by the mutation. 

To take into account the fact that every strain would probably evolve a bit to grow better in the environment, they only looked for those that had gained more growth advantage than the wild type had. Around 68% of the strains showed at least one replicate that met this criterion.

So as we might expect, it is possible for a strain that grows poorly to mutate its way closer to a wild type growth rate. The next question was whether these mutant strains had mutated back to something close to wild type or to something new.

The authors decided to answer this question by doing a gene expression analysis of the wild type, the eight mutant strains, and a corresponding evolved line from each of these eight. After doing transcriptome analysis, they found that for the most part the evolved lines did not simply revert back to the original gene expression pattern of the wild type strain. Instead, they generated a novel gene expression pattern to deal with the consequences of having lost the original gene. And in the next set of experiments, the authors showed that this matters when the evolved strains are put in a new environment.

The researchers took 237 evolved lines that grew nearly as well as the original wild type strain and tested how well they each did in 14 different environments. In other words, they tested genetically distinct, phenotypically similar strains in new environments.

They found that even though the original mutant strains grew poorly in all the environments tested, the evolved ones sometimes did better. Fitness improved in 52% of the strains and declined in 8%. What is even more interesting is that a few stumbled upon genotypes that were significantly better than the evolved wild type in a particular environment.

A couple of great examples are the rpl6b or atp11 deletion mutant strains. Strains evolved from either mutant did around 25% better than the evolved wild type strain in high salt, even though both of the original mutants did significantly worse than the wild type strain. By suffering a bad mutation, the evolved strain had been rerouted so that it now grew better than wild type. 

So it looks like getting a bad mutation may not be all bad after all. It might just give you that competitive edge you need when things change. Sometimes the best way to get from point A to point B is not a straight line. 

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics

Finding the Right Tools for the Job

November 6, 2014

 

Researchers Create a New Gene Editing Tool for Prototrophs and Diploids:

If you like spending your weekends tinkering with your beautiful 1957 Ford Thunderbird that only leaves the garage on sunny days, then you probably own a set of “standard” wrenches, sized in inches.  But if you wanted to tune up the trusty 2008 Subaru that gets you to work every day, you’d be out of luck. The standard wrenches are no use and you’d need a set of metric wrenches to fit the Subaru parts.

Whether you want to tinker with a classic car or a yeast genome, it’s important to use the right tools. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Molecular tools can be like that too. The genetic engineering toolkit that has been used on Saccharomyces cerevisiae for many years has been terrifically handy, but it only works for strains that have specific nutritional requirements, termed auxotrophs. It’s not so useful for so-called prototrophic strains that are already able to make all the compounds that they need. And some of the non-cerevisiae Saccharomyces strains that are being studied more and more these days happen to be prototrophic.

But in a new GENETICS paper, Alexander and colleagues describe a new toolkit that works on the prototrophic wild and industrial Saccharomyces species and even works efficiently on diploid strains. This sets the stage for faster and more versatile modification of these strains that are becoming useful models for molecular evolution, as well as helping us to make wine, brew beer, and produce chemicals. 

The “standard” toolkit for S. cerevisiae is based on nutritional markers that can be selected. For example, a ura3 mutant strain can’t grow without added uracil in the medium, but when it is transformed with the wild-type URA3 gene it doesn’t need uracil any more.

Importantly, URA3 can also be selected against: ura3 mutants can survive in the presence of 5-fluoroorotic acid (5-FOA), but wild-type URA3 strains cannot. So, starting with a ura3 mutant you can replace any desired sequence with the URA3 gene, selecting for growth in the absence of uracil; then you can tinker with a gene of interest and add the modified version back into the cell to replace URA3, now selecting for 5-FOA resistance. 

Another tool in the classic toolkit is a site-specific nuclease like SceI that can encourage any added fragments to end up in the right spot in the yeast genome. Free DNA ends at a chromosomal break stimulate integration of a transformed fragment if its ends are homologous to the chromosome near the break.

To do this kind of tinkering with prototrophic strains, the researchers needed a marker that could be selected both positively and negatively like URA3. Using a gene that has no equivalent in yeast would be an added plus, since it would be easy to detect and follow. They turned to thymidine kinase (TK), which was lost from the fungal lineage a billion years ago.

TK from Herpes simplex virus had already been expressed in yeast and was known to confer resistance to antifolate drugs. And it had already been shown in other organisms that TK makes cells sensitive to 5-fluorodeoxyuridine (FUdR). The researchers tried it in yeast, and sure enough, only cells that had lost the added TK gene were able to grow in the presence of FUdR.

Alexander and colleagues next created a gene cassette, which they named HERP (Haploid Engineering and Replacement Protocol). The cassette contained the TK gene, a galactose-inducible version of the SCEI gene, and an SceI cleavage site.

As a test case, they decided to replace the S. cerevisiae ADE2 gene with the ADE2 orthologs from seven Saccharomyces species. Transforming with a mixture of seven different sequences and retrieving all seven desired constructs would be a proof of concept showing that this procedure could be used to transform with pools of different sequences and generate a whole library of different strains. And it worked.

They first replaced the ADE2 gene in S. cerevisiae with the HERP cassette, selecting for resistance to antifolates. Next they transformed the HERP-containing strain with a mixture of seven fragments, in the presence of galactose (to turn on SceI and cut the chromosome at that location) and FUdR (to select against cells in which the HERP cassette was not replaced with ADE2). The strategy worked perfectly and efficiently: they got transformants carrying each of the genes, integrated at the correct location.

This work in haploids was all well and good, but most wild type and industrial strains are diploid. And these sorts of strategies tend to work badly in diploids because the cell uses the other gene copy for homologous recombination instead of the DNA fragments scientists put in. To be really useful, HERP would need to work in diploids too.

Alexander and coworkers managed to get HERP to work efficiently in diploids by setting up a situation where both homologous chromosomes had HERP cassettes with SceI recognition sites. Now, when they induced SceI with galactose, both chromosomes of the diploid strain were cut. This dramatically increased the efficiency of transformation: 14 out of 15 strains carried the transformed sequence on both chromosomes instead of the more typical 4% seen with other methods.

So now we have a versatile toolkit that can be used on many different makes and models of yeasts. With a little modification, it could also be applied to many other fungi. And although you can’t use the metric wrench set on your Thunderbird, these HERP cassettes work just as well on S. cerevisiae as on other Saccharomyces species.

The ability to work with prototrophic strains could be a big advantage even in lab strains of S. cerevisiae, since auxotrophic strains sometimes grow slower than wild type even when supplemented with the nutrients they need. So now we have an even larger set of tools to choose from when we want to take that old Thunderbird out for a spin. 

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

Taking the Pulse of a Yeast Cell

October 30, 2014

Yeast cells have a pulse of sorts, although it’s not the kind that would interest Dracula. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Halloween is the time of year when we are all reminded of vampires. And if our favorite yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae isn’t careful, it might be a vampire’s next target.

Vampires are drawn to living things with pulses so they can suck out their blood. And in a new study in Current Biology, Dalal and colleagues have found a pulse of sorts in yeast cells.

Now of course the yeast aren’t pumping blood. Instead, hordes of proteins are pulsing from place to place within the cell. Dracula might be attracted by these pulses, but would be very disappointed indeed to find that there’s no blood involved…

It’s a pretty recent discovery that some proteins move around in a coordinated way. They come together in one location at the same time, and then later all move to another location in response to changes in environmental conditions, or even under constant conditions.  This phenomenon of “pulsatile dynamics” has been seen in organisms ranging from bacteria to human.

Dalal and colleagues harnessed the awesome power of yeast genomics, in combination with sophisticated imaging equipment, to ask a question that was unthinkable before these resources were available.  How many yeast proteins, out of the entire proteome, show pulsatile dynamics?

This was obviously an ambitious goal. The researchers started with a library of 4159 strains, each containing a different yeast open reading frame fused to the gene for green fluorescent protein.  Rather than following the location of each protein over time in great detail, which would have been a huge amount of work, they devised an ingenious scheme to narrow down the possibilities and focus on potentially pulsing proteins.

In the first phase, they looked at the library at fairly low resolution, following individual cells by taking pictures once an hour over about 10 hours.  This improved their focus right away: most proteins just stayed put, and only 170 showed any hint of pulsing.

In the next phase, Dalal and coworkers looked more closely at those 170 strains, taking a picture every 4 minutes over a 4-hour span.  This eliminated another large group and left them with 64 proteins that still seemed to show pulsatile dynamics.

Another two steps cut the list of candidates way down. Other scientists had shown previously that some yeast proteins show cell cycle-dependent pulsatile movement. Since the researchers were less interested in these, they looked at protein movement during the cell cycle and eliminated 25 proteins whose movement followed it.

They also wondered whether some of the apparent movement they saw was simply due to small shifts in the focal plane during the experiment. To control for this, they examined their candidate proteins in three focal planes, spaced 0.5 um apart.

After all of these steps, Dalal and colleagues were left with just 9 proteins. All of the proteins showed pulsing into the nucleus; seven were known transcription factors, and two were subunits of the RPD3L histone deacetylase complex.

The researchers wondered whether they might have missed any other transcription factors because they hadn’t used the right conditions to see pulsing. So they looked specifically at 122 known transcription factors, testing each under conditions known to induce their activity. This analysis confirmed the previous 9 proteins found, and added just one more.

Interestingly, eight of the ten were members of paralog pairs. In three of these pairs, both members showed pulsing. Looking in detail at the MSN2-MSN4 paralog pair, the researchers found that the pulsing of Msn2p was correlated with that of Msn4p. It isn’t yet clear whether the pulsing phenomenon evolved before the whole-genome duplication that created the paralog pairs, or alternatively whether regulators shared between paralogs later became pulsatile.

Since all of the yeast pulsing proteins are involved in transcriptional regulation, and pulsing brings them into the nucleus where they are active, it’s very likely that the pulsing is an important part of their regulatory role. And since this regulatory mechanism is conserved across species, yeast will provide a great model for studying and understanding it. Dracula might be disappointed, but the rest of us will benefit.

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

If Yeast Can’t Stand the Heat, Our World May Be in Trouble

October 23, 2014

In case there were still any doubters, the world is definitely heating up. April to September 2014 were the warmest these months have ever been since we started keeping records in 1880. And about 35,000 walruses were forced ashore this summer in Alaska because there wasn’t enough room left for them on the sea ice where they normally hang out. Unfortunately, the trend looks to be more record breaking heat for as long as we can see in the future.

Like the X-men, mutated yeast might one day be the superheroes that save us from the worst effects of global warming. Image by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

This is bad news for us, and even worse news for nature.  But all is not lost! Our hero yeast may be able to swoop in and make us biofuels to replace gasoline.  This won’t stop global warming, but it might at the very least slow it down.

But yeast in its current form probably couldn’t make enough biofuels to make a difference without using too much precious food in the process. Like the X-men, it will need a helpful mutation or two to increase its efficiency to the point where it can make a real dent in slowing down the relentless rise in global temperatures. And ironically, one new trait yeast needs to pull this off is to be able to survive better in the heat.

To efficiently turn the parts of the plants we can’t use (mostly anything to do with cellulose) into biofuels, we need for yeast to grow in cultures where enzymes are chopping cellulose into bite sized pieces at the same time.  These enzymes work best at temperatures that are a real struggle for wild type yeast.

In a new study in Science, Caspeta and coworkers isolated mutants better able to tolerate high temperatures by simply growing Saccharomyces cerevisiae at around 39.5° C for over 300 generations.  They did this in triplicate and ended up with strains that grew on average about 1.9 times faster than wild type yeast at these temperatures.

The next step was to use genome sequencing and whole-genome transcription profiling to figure out why these mutant strains were heat tolerant. This is where things got really interesting.

They found many genes that were affected, but identified ERG3 as the most important player. All of the thermotolerant strains that they selected contained a nonsense mutation in ERG3. And in fact, when they introduced an erg3 nonsense mutation into wild type yeast, they found that this engineered strain grew 86% as well as the original mutant strain at high temperatures. In other words, most of the heat tolerance of these strains came from mutations in the ERG3 gene.

This makes sense, as membrane fluidity is a key factor in dealing with higher temperatures, and ERG3 codes for a C-5 sterol desaturase important for membrane composition.  When Caspeta and coworkers looked at the membranes of the mutant strains, they found a buildup of the “bended” sterol fecosterol.  Since “bended” sterols have been shown to protect the membranes of plants and Archaea from temperature swings, this could be the reason that the mutant strains dealt with the heat so well.

So as we might predict, changing the composition of the cell membrane affects how the yeast respond to temperature. What we couldn’t predict is that in order to get to this point via artificial selection, the yeast had to have a second mutation in either the ATP2 or the ATP3 genes that actually make yeast less able to grow at higher temperatures.

Because ATP2 and ATP3 are needed for yeast to grow on nonfermentable carbon sources, the authors hypothesized that perhaps thermotolerance could not evolve while oxidative respiration worked at full speed. Consistent with this, Caspeta and coworkers found that their evolved thermotolerant strains were more susceptible to oxidative stress and could not grow on nonfermentable carbon sources. This was not true of the strain they engineered to only have the mutation in the ERG3 gene—it grew well at 40° C and could use nonfermentable carbon sources.

So not only have these authors found a mutant yeast with the superpower of growing at higher temperatures, but they also showed that sometimes engineering works better than natural selection at creating the mutant they want. Evolving sometimes requires passing through an intermediate that makes the final product less useful than it could have been. In this case it worked best to use a combination of artificial selection and engineering to build a better mutant.   

Even this super engineered yeast mutant won’t stop global warming in its tracks, but it might help us to slow it down enough so that natural systems have a chance to adapt. A superhero indeed… 

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics

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