New & Noteworthy

Yeast are People Too

June 3, 2015


Cars on the road today all look pretty similar from the outside, whether they’re gasoline-fueled or electric. On the inside, they’re fairly similar too. Even between the two kinds of car, you can probably get away with swapping parts like the air conditioner, the tires, or the seat belts. Although cars have changed over the years, these things haven’t changed all that much.

Just like these cars, yeast and human cells have some big differences under the hood but still share plenty of parts that are interchangeable. Nissan Leaf image via Wikimedia Commons; Ford Mustang image copyright Bill Nicholls via Creative Commons

The engine, though, is a different story. All the working parts of that Nissan Leaf engine have “evolved” together into a very different engine from the one in that Ford Mustang. They both have engines, but the parts aren’t really interchangeable any more.

We can think of yeast and human cells like this too. We’ve known for a while that we humans have quite a bit in common with our favorite little workhorse S. cerevisiae. But until now, no one had any idea how common it was for yeast-human pairs of similar-looking proteins to function so similarly that they are interchangeable between organisms.

In a study published last week in Science, Kachroo and colleagues looked at this question by systematically replacing a large set of essential yeast genes with their human orthologs. Amazingly, they found that almost half of the human proteins could keep the yeast mutants alive.

Also surprising was that the degree of similarity between the yeast and human proteins wasn’t always the most important factor in whether the proteins could be interchanged. Instead, membership in a gene module—a set of genes encoding proteins that act in a group, such as a complex or pathway—was an important predictor. 

The authors found that genes within a given module tended to be either mostly interchangeable or mostly not interchangeable, suggesting that if one protein changes during evolution, then the proteins with which it interacts may need to evolve as well. So we can trade air conditioner parts between the Leaf and the Mustang, but the Mustang’s spark plugs won’t do a thing in that newly evolved electric engine!

To begin their systematic survey, Kachroo and colleagues chose a set of 414 yeast genes that are essential for life and have a single human ortholog. They cloned the human cDNAs in plasmids for yeast expression, and transformed them into yeast that were mutant in the orthologous gene to see if the human gene would supply the missing yeast function.

They tested complementation using three different assays. In one, the human ortholog was transformed into a strain where expression of the yeast gene was under control of a tetracycline-repressible promoter. So if the human gene complemented the yeast mutation, it would be able to keep the yeast alive in the presence of tetracycline.

Another assay used temperature-sensitive mutants in the yeast genes and looked to see if the human orthologs could support yeast growth at the restrictive temperature. And the third assay tested whether a yeast haploid null mutant strain carrying the human gene could be recovered after sporulation of the heterozygous null diploid.

Remarkably, 176 human genes could keep the corresponding yeast mutant alive in at least one of these assays. A survey of the literature for additional examples brought the total to 199, or 47% of the tested set. After a billion years of separate evolution, yeast and humans still have hundreds of interchangeable parts!

That was the first big surprise. But the researchers didn’t stop there. They wondered what distinguished the genes that were interchangeable from those that weren’t. The simplest explanation would seem to be that the more similar the two proteins, the more likely they would work the same way. 

But biology is never so simple, is it? While it was true that human proteins with greater than 50% amino acid identity to yeast proteins were more likely to be able to replace their yeast equivalents, and that those with less than 20% amino acid identity were least likely to function in yeast, those in between did not follow the same rules. There was no correlation between similarity and interchangeability in ortholog pairs with 20-50% identity.  

After comparing 104 different types of quantitative data on each ortholog pair, including codon usage, gene expression levels, and so on, the authors found only one good predictor. If one yeast protein in a protein complex or pathway could be exchanged with its human ortholog, then usually most of the rest of the proteins in that complex or pathway could too.

This budding yeast-human drives home the point that humans and yeast share a lot in common: so much, that yeast continues (and will continue) to be the pre-eminent tool for understanding the fundamental biology of being human. Image courtesy of Stacia Engel

All of the genes that that make the proteins in these systems are said to be part of a gene module. Kachroo and colleagues found that most or all of the genes in a particular module were likely to be in the same class, either interchangeable or not. We can trade pretty much all of the parts between the radios of a Leaf and a Mustang, but none of the engine parts.

For example, none of the tested subunits of three different, conserved protein complexes (the TriC chaperone complex, origin recognition complex, and MCM complex) could complement the equivalent yeast mutations. But in contrast, 17 out of 19 tested genes in the sterol biosynthesis pathway were interchangeable.

Even within a single large complex, the proteasome, the subunits of one sub-complex, the alpha ring, were largely interchangeable while those of another sub-complex, the beta ring, were not. The researchers tested whether this trend was conserved across other species by testing complementation by proteasome subunit genes from Saccharomyces kluyveri, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, and the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis. Sure enough, alpha ring subunits from these organisms complemented the S. cerevisiae mutations, while beta ring subunits did not.

These results suggest that selection pressures operate similarly on all the genes in a module. And if proteins continue to interact across evolution, they can diverge widely in some regions while their interaction interfaces stay more conserved, so that orthologs from different species are more likely to be interchangeable.

The finding that interchangeability is so common has huge implications for research on human proteins. It’s now conceivable to “humanize” an entire pathway or complex, replacing the yeast genes with their human equivalents. And that means that all of the versatile tools of yeast genetics and molecular biology can be brought to bear on the human genes and proteins.

At SGD we’ve always known that yeast has a lot to say about human health and disease. With the growing body of work in these areas, we’re expanding our coverage of yeast-human orthology, cross-species functional complementation, and studies of human disease-associated genes in yeast. Watch this space as we announce new data in YeastMine, in download files, and on SGD web pages.

by Maria Costanzo, Ph.D., Senior Biocuration Scientist, SGD

The Failed Hook Up: A Sitcom Starring S. cerevisiae

May 27, 2015


As anyone who watches a situation comedy knows, long range relationships are tricky. The longer the couple is separated, the more they drift apart. Eventually they are just too different, and they break up.

Jerry Seinfeld finds girlfriends incompatible for seemingly minor reasons like eating peas one at a time. Different yeast strains become incompatible over small differences in certain genes as well. Image by Dano Nicholson via Flickr

Of course if this were the end of the story, it would be the plot of the worst comedy ever. What usually happens in the sitcom is that one or both of them find someone more compatible and live happily ever after (with lots of silliness and high jinks).

Turns out that according to a new study by Hou and coworkers, our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae could star in this sitcom. When different populations live in different environments, they drift apart. Eventually, because they accumulate chromosomal translocations and other serious mutations, they have trouble mating and having healthy offspring.

Now researchers already knew that big changes in yeast, like chromosomal translocations, affect hybrid offspring. But what was controversial before and what this study shows is that, as is known for plants and animals, smaller changes like point mutations can affect the ability of distinct populations of yeast to have healthy progeny. It is like Jerry Seinfeld being incompatible with a girl because she eats her peas one at a time (click here for other silly reasons Jerry breaks up with girlfriends).  

The key to finding that yeast can be Seinfeldesque was to grow hybrid offspring in different environments. Hybrids that did great on rich media like YPD sometimes suffered under certain, specific growth conditions. Relying on the standard medium YPD masked mutations that could have heralded the beginnings of a new species of yeast.

See, genetic isolation is a powerful way for speciation to happen. One population generates a mutation in a gene and the second population has a mutation in a second gene. In combination, these two mutations cause a growth defect or even death. Now each population must evolve on its own, eventually separating into two species.

To show that this is a route that yeast can take to new species, Hou and coworkers mated 27 different Saccharomyces cerevisiae isolates with the reference laboratory strain S288C and grew their progeny under 20 different conditions. These strains were chosen because they were all able to produce spores with S288C that were viable on rich medium (YPD).

Once they eliminated the 59 pairings that involved parental strains that could not grow under certain conditions, they found that 117 out of 481 or 24.3% of crosses showed at least some negative effect on the growth of the progeny under at least some environmental conditions. And some of these were pretty bad. In 32 cases, at least 20% of the spores could not survive.

The authors decided to focus on crosses between S288C and a clinical isolate, YJM241, where around 25% of spores were inviable under growth conditions that required good respiration, such as the nonfermentable carbon source glycerol. They found that rather than each strain having a variant that affected respiration, the growth defect happened because of two complementary mutations in the clinical isolate.

The first mutation was a nonsense mutation in COX15, a protein involved in maturation of the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase complex, which is essential for respiration. The second was a nonsense suppressor mutation in a tyrosine tRNA, SUP7. So YJM241 was fine because it had both the mutation and the mechanism for suppressing the mutation. Its offspring with S288C were not so lucky.

Around 1 in 4 progeny got the mutated COX15 gene without SUP7 and so could not survive under conditions that required respiration. Which of course is why this was missed when the two strains were mated on YPD, where respiration isn’t required for growth.

So this is a case where the separated population, the clinical isolate YJM241, changed on its own such that it would have difficulty producing viable progeny with any other yeast strains. Like the narrator in that old Simon and Garfunkel song, it had become an island unto itself.

The researchers wondered whether this kind of change—a nonsense mutation combined with a suppressor—occurs frequently in natural yeast populations. They surveyed 100 different S. cerevisiae genome sequences and found that nonsense mutations are actually pretty common. Nonsense suppressor mutations were another story, though: they found exactly zero.

Apparently nonsense suppressor mutations are really rare in the yeast world, and Hou and colleagues wondered whether this was because they had a negative effect on growth. They added the SUP7 suppressor mutant gene to 23 natural isolates. It had negative effects on most of the isolates during growth on rich media, but it was more of a mixed bag under various stress conditions. Sometimes the mutation had negative effects and sometimes it had positive effects.

The fact that a suppressor mutation can provide a growth advantage under the right circumstances, combined with the fact that they are very rare, suggests that a new suppressor arising might help a yeast population out of a jam, but once the environment improves the yeast are free to jettison it. Suppressor mutations may be a transitory phenomenon, a momentary dalliance.

So, separate populations of yeast can change over time in subtle ways that prevent them from mating with one another. This can eventually lead to the formation of new species as the changes cause the two to drift too far apart genetically. It is satisfying to know that yeast drift apart like any other plant, animal, or sitcom character.

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

Getting the Big Picture from 100 Genomes

May 20, 2015


Like the Peruvian Hairless dog, in some ways the S288C genome looks quite different from other members of its species. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine if aliens visited the earth to learn about dogs, but they stumbled upon a colony of the very rare Peruvian Hairless. Taking a sample for DNA analysis, they would retreat to their home planet, do their studies, and conclude that all dogs had smooth, mottled skin and a stiff mohawk—as well as whatever crazy mutations the Peruvian Hairless happens to carry. 

Until recently, S. cerevisiae researchers have been a bit like those aliens. The genomic sequence of the reference strain S288C was completed in 1996, and for a long time it was the only sequence available. Scientists knew a lot about the S288C genome, but they didn’t have any perspective on the species as a whole.

In the past few years, genomic sequences have become available from a handful of other strains. But now, as described in a new paper in Genome Research, Strope and colleagues have determined the genomic sequences of 93 additional S. cerevisiae strains to make the number an even hundred.

This collection of strains and sequences has already provided new insights into yeast phenotypic and genotypic variation, and represents an incredible resource for future studies. And the comparison with this collection of other strains suggests that in some ways, S288C may be just as unusual as the Peruvian Hairless.

This collection of strains and their sequences gave the researchers a much broader perspective across the whole S. cerevisiae species. It’s as if the aliens discovered Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and more. We only have space here to touch upon a few of the highlights.

First off, they confirmed what many yeast researchers have suspected for a while—S288C is a bit odd.  We already knew that a S288C carries polymorphisms in several genes that affect its phenotype. For example, the MIP1 gene in S288C encodes a mitochondrial DNA polymerase that is less efficient than in other strains, making its mitochondrial genome less stable.

Back when fewer strain sequences were available, it wasn’t clear whether the S288C polymorphisms in other genes like MKT1, SSD1, MIP1, AMN1, FLO8, HAP1, BUL2, and SAL1 were the exception or the rule. Now that Strope and colleagues had 100 genomes in hand, they could see that these differences are indeed peculiar to S288C and its close relative W303.  They might have arisen because of the long genetic isolation of the strains, or because of special selective pressures they faced during growth in the lab.

They also found a lot of variation in how often S. cerevisiae strains have acquired whole chromosomal regions from other Saccharomyces species. This process, known as introgression, happens when related species mate to form hybrids. Stretches of DNA that are transferred in this way are recognizable because gene order is preserved, but all the genes they contain are highly diverged.

The researchers found 141 of these regions containing 401 genes. Many showed similarity to S. paradoxus, which is known to hybridize with S. cerevisiae, but others apparently came from unknown, as yet un-sequenced Saccharomyces species. In a couple of cases that the authors looked at closely, the introgressed genes had slightly different functions from their native S. cerevisiae counterparts.

Another notable finding by Strope and colleagues concerned some genes that exist in multiple copies. The ENA genes, encoding an ATP-dependent sodium pump, are present in 3 copies in S288C (ENA1ENA2, and ENA5), while the CUP1-1 and CUP1-2 genes, encoding metallothionein that binds to copper and mediates copper resistance, are present in 10-15 copies.

To get perspective on a whole species, you need to look at lots of different examples. Image by Sue Clark via Flickr

The sequence coverage in these regions relative to their flanking regions allowed the researchers to see exactly how many repeats are present in each strain. All had between 1-14 copies of ENA genes and 1-18 copies of CUP genes. Interestingly, the strains of clinical origin had significantly higher copy numbers of CUP genes than the non-clinical strains, suggesting that copper resistance is an important trait for virulence.

So, instead of being confined to the S288C genome, S. cerevisiae researchers can now get a much fuller idea of the range of genetic and phenotypic variation within the species. The strains (available at the Fungal Genetic Stock Center), along with their genome sequences (available in GenBank), are an amazing resource for classical and quantitative genetics and comparative genomics.

Unlike those aliens, we won’t end up thinking of yeast as a mostly bald dog with a mohawk. No, we will have a fuller picture of S. cerevisiae strains in all their glory.

A few technical details

In selecting the strains to sequence, Strope and colleagues chose from a wide variety of yeast cultures isolated from the environment and from hospital patients with opportunistic S. cerevisiae infections. But they faced a problem: many of the cultures had irregular numbers of chromosomes or genome rearrangements, which would complicate both interpretation of the sequence data and any future genetic analysis.

To avoid this problem, the researchers selected only strains that were able to sporulate and produce four viable spores—showing that their genomes weren’t messed up. They also wanted strains with no auxotrophies (nutritional requirements), since these can negatively affect growth and complicate the comparison of phenotypes. In some cases, they corrected specific mutations in the strains to increase their fitness.

They ended up with 93 homozygous diploid strains to sequence. Producing paired-end reads of 101 bp, they generated genome assemblies that had 22- to 650-fold coverage per strain.

Because the sequence reads were relatively short, they didn’t provide enough information to assemble the sequence across repetitive regions. So Strope and colleagues used a genetic method to determine gene order. They crossed haploid derivatives of the strains to the reference strain S288C; if their genomes were not colinear with that of S288C, then some of the resulting spores would be inviable.

This analysis showed that 79 of the strains had chromosomes colinear to those of S288C, and allowed assembly of their genomes across multicopy sequences. The remaining strains had chromosomal translocations relative to S288C. Twelve of these carried the same reciprocal translocation between chromosomes 8 and 16.

by Maria Costanzo, Ph.D., Senior Biocuration Scientist, SGD

If it Swims Like a Duck…

May 6, 2015


It may swim like a duck, but this beast is obviously not a duck. Just like the glycine patch of Pxr1 looks like an interaction region when it isn’t. Image by Yotujonoo via Creative Commons

Back in the 1980’s some U.S. politicians were proposing to raise money by something they called “revenue enhancements”. Richard Darman, the budget director at the time, correctly pointed out that a revenue enhancement really is just a tax increase by another name. 

To make his point, he used the expression, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” In other words, just because politicians call it something else, if a revenue enhancement does everything a tax increase does then it really is just a tax increase.

This same reasoning is often used in biology. If two regions of a protein look the same (are homologous) and the proteins do similar things, then the two similar regions do the same thing. Except, of course, when they don’t.

This probably isn’t what Conan O’Brien had in mind when he changed the famous expression a bit to say, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a little person dressed as a duck,” but as is often the case with Team Coco, he was right in both biology and life. Not everything that looks and quacks like a duck is a duck, and not every homologous region in proteins that do similar things does the same thing.

Conan’s point is borne out in a new study out in GENETICS where Banerjee and coworkers show that even though the yeast Prp43 RNA helicase shares glycine patches with three of the proteins with which it interacts, this doesn’t mean the glycine patches are used the same way in each case. They may all look and act like ducks, but they are not all ducks! 

Glycine patches are short, glycine-rich protein motifs that are thought to help proteins recognize other proteins or RNAs. Two of the proteins that the researchers looked at, Spp382 and Sqs1, have glycine patches that are only subtly different from that of Prp43. In both of these, the glycine patch is important for interacting with Prp43, but that isn’t its only role. The patches really are ducks in this case, just different kinds of ducks—maybe a mallard and a mandarin duck.

In the case of the third protein, Pxr1, the glycine patch seems to have a completely different (albeit important) role. In this case, it really is a little person in a duck costume!

Prp43 is involved in two different kinds of RNA processing in the yeast cell—pre-mRNA splicing and rRNA maturation. It is one of the few proteins shared between the two complexes involved in each process.

Previous work had shown that different factors in each complex are important for bringing Prp43 to each party. For rRNA maturation, Sqs1 and Pxr1 are the critical players, while for pre-mRNA splicing, Spp382 is key. Since all four proteins share little else beyond a shared weakly conserved, 45-50 amino acid glycine-rich patch, one idea was that all of these proteins use the patch to interact with one another. As is true of much in life, the real answer is a bit more complicated than that.

The first set of experiments was to determine how well Prp43 interacts with each of the other glycine patches, using yeast two-hybrid assays. With full length proteins, the authors found that Spp382 interacted most strongly with Prp43, Pxr1 was the weakest, and Sqs1 was intermediate. They got a similar order of interaction when using just the glycine patches of each of these three proteins, with one small difference: the Pxr1 glycine patch did no better than the empty vector control.

This last result suggested that the glycine patch of Pxr1 was insufficient on its own to interact with Prp43. This was confirmed when they found no difference in the interaction of full length Pxr1 and Pxr1 deleted for the glycine patch.

The Pxr1 glycine patch apparently plays no role in interacting with Prp43—it really isn’t a duck at all. But that doesn’t mean it is dispensable! They showed later that it is critical for snoRNA processing, an important step needed for rRNA maturation.

Mandarins and mallards look like ducks and quack like ducks…and they are ducks. Like these ducks, the glycine patches of Spp82 and Sqs1 look and act like interaction regions, and in fact they are interaction regions. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, sometimes if it looks and quacks like a duck, it is indeed a duck. This was the case for Sqs1 and Spp382.

As shown by two-hybrid and glycine patch swap assays, each of these glycine patches do seem to be important for interacting with Prp43. But each patch was more than just a way for two proteins to hook up.

To show this, Banerjee and coworkers looked for chimeras of Spp382, Pxr1, and Sqs1 that could rescue the lethal phenotype of a Spp382 deletion. First off, they showed that deleting the glycine patch from Spp382 was equivalent to deleting the whole protein—it was a lethal event. And as expected, replacing the Spp382 glycine patch with the one from Pxr1 was still lethal. But the Sqs1 glycine patch was able to rescue the deletion strain although it grew more slowly. So the Spp382 and Sqs1 glycine patches could to some extent substitute for one another.

One way to interpret the difference in growth rates is that it has to do with the fact that the glycine patch of Spp382 bound more strongly to Prp43 than did the one from Sqs1. The glycine patch from Sqs1 can’t fully rescue the Spp382 deletion strain because it is a weaker binder. But a set of mutagenesis experiments suggests that this is not the case.

The authors basically took the Spp382/Pxr1 chimera in which the Pxr1 glycine patch replaced the one from Spp382 and made a series of point mutations that slowly converted the glycine patch back to the one from Spp382. What they found was that the strength of interaction in the two-hybrid assay does not correlate with the level of rescue in the complementation assay. One interpretation is that the Spp382 glycine patch is doing more than recruiting Prp43.

Taken together, these results are a bit of a biological cautionary tale. Just because a protein region looks like another one, do not assume they are doing the same thing. Sometimes what looks and acts like a duck is just a man dressed as a duck.

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

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