New & Noteworthy

How to Make A Safe and Fun Mitochondrion

January 13, 2015


Influencing mitochondrial import to treat disease:

Bounce houses are a great way for kids to burn off their excess energy. They can bounce off the floor and walls and scream to their hearts’ content.

It’s important to keep tabs on how many kids get into a bounce house, so that everyone has a good time. It’s even more important for yeast and human cells to keep tabs on mitochondrial import to ensure healthy ATP synthesis. Image via Flickr

Of course, adults need to keep an eye on how many kids are in the house at any one time, to keep things safe. And if one child starts to push and kick the others, it might be easier to restore calm if the adults are careful about how many kids, and which ones, they allow inside.

The yeast mitochondrion is actually a lot like a bounce house. It’s full of energy, and it has multiple gatekeepers—protein complexes in the mitochondrial membrane that imported proteins must pass through on their way in.

And, just like a bounce house, things can go very wrong inside the mitochondrion if its proteins don’t behave properly. The end result isn’t just an upset child with a black eye, either. Genetic diseases that affect mitochondrial function are among the most severe and the hardest to treat.

Now, described in a new paper in Nature CommunicationsAiyar and colleagues have used a yeast model of human mitochondrial disease to discover both a drug and a genetic means to regulate a mitochondrial import complex. Surprisingly, tweaking mitochondrial import slightly by either of these methods mitigated the disease symptoms in both yeast and human cells.  They found a gatekeeper who can make sure there is the right number of kids in the bounce house and that they’re all behaving properly (at least, as well as they can!).

The researchers were interested in mitochondrial disorders that affected ATP synthase. This huge molecular machine in the mitochondrial inner membrane is responsible for generating most of the cell’s energy, so if it doesn’t work properly it can be a disaster for both yeast and human cells.

Aiyar and coworkers used a genetic trick to create a yeast model that had lower amounts of functional ATP synthase. This mimics many mitochondrial disorders.

They were able to reduce the amount of functional ATP synthase by using an fmc1 null mutant. Fmc1p is involved in assembly of the complex, so the fmc1 null mutant has lower amounts of functional ATP synthase and a reduced respiration rate.

First, they looked for a drug that would mitigate the effects of the fmc1 mutation. They tested the drugs in a collection that had already been FDA approved—a drug repurposing library—to see if any would improve the mutant’s respiratory growth.

The one candidate drug that emerged from the screen was sodium pyrithione (NaPT), which is used as an antiseptic. Not only did it improve the respiration of the yeast fmc1 mutant, it also improved the respiratory growth of a human cell line carrying the atp6-T8993G mutation found in patients with neuropathy, ataxia and retinitis pigmentosa (NARP, one type of ATP synthase disorder).

Aiyar and colleagues wondered exactly what was being affected by the NaPT. To figure this out, they used the S. cerevisiae genome-wide heterozygous deletion mutant collection. This is a set of diploid strains, each heterozygous for a null mutation of a different gene, that has been an incredibly useful resource for all kinds of studies in yeast.

They tested the effect of NaPT on each of the mutant strains and found that strains with mutations in the TIM17 and TIM23 genes were among the most sensitive. And, when they checked the data from previous chemogenomic screens, they saw that these two mutants were much more sensitive to NaPT than to any other drug, showing that the effect was specific.

TIM17 and TIM23 are both subunits of the Tim23 complex in the mitochondrial inner membrane that acts as a gate for many of the proteins that end up in mitochondria. The researchers found that NaPT specifically inhibited the function of this mitochondrial gatekeeper complex in an in vitro mitochondrial import assay, confirming its selectivity.

So, Aiyar and coworkers had found a drug that alleviates the effects of an ATP synthase disorder by modulating the function of a mitochondrial gatekeeper. This in itself was a huge advance: the discovery that a potentially useful, already-approved drug has a specific effect on this disease phenotype.

However, the scientists took things a step further by looking to see whether a genetic therapy could accomplish the same thing as the drug.  It was already known that overexpressing Tim21p, a regulatory subunit of the Tim23 complex, could modulate the function of the complex similarly to the effects they had seen for NaPT.

So the researchers tested whether overexpressing Tim21p would improve respiratory growth of the fmc1 mutant. Sure enough, it did. Consistent with this, assembly of the respiratory enzyme complexes of the mitochondrial inner membrane was more efficient when Tim21p was overexpressed.

Most importantly, overexpression of Tim21p in the fmc1 mutant cells caused their total ATP synthesis to more than double.  And even more exciting was the discovery that overexpressing TIMM21, the human ortholog of TIM21, in the NARP disease human cell line improved survival of those cells.

So, just like a parent deciding how many kids should be in a bounce house so that everyone has a good time, the Tim23 complex can be made to “decide” which proteins, or perhaps how many proteins, get into mitochondria, with the end result that ATP synthesis happens as efficiently as possible. The exact mechanism of this effect is still unclear, but it is clear that modulating import in this way can improve mitochondrial health even when disease mutant proteins are present.

The next step will be to translate this discovery into therapies that will help mitochondrial disease patients. People with various mitochondrial disorders may finally be able to turn their mitochondria into safe, fun places.

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

Yeast Genetics Makes Awesome Sauce

January 8, 2015


Just as many different combinations of ingredients can make a homemade tomato sauce, many different combinations of alleles can mitigate the effects of a devastating mutation. Image via Pixabay.com


What’s for dinner tonight? For many of us the answer will be “pasta with tomato sauce”, even if we don’t have Italian roots.

But as you know, there isn’t any single recipe for homemade tomato sauce. Onions and garlic, or just garlic? Pork, beef, or no meat at all? How many bay leaves go in the pot? Every cook will use a slightly different combination of ingredients, but all will end up with tomato sauce.

When it comes to combining different allele variants to survive a lethal challenge, yeast is a lot like those cooks. In a new paper in GENETICS, Sirr and colleagues used divergent yeast strains to generate a wide range of allelic backgrounds and found that there is more than one way to survive a deadly mutation in the GAL7 gene.  Just as there is more than one way to make a delicious tomato sauce…

This isn’t just an academic exercise either.  GAL7 is the ortholog of the human GALT gene, which when mutated leads to the disease galactosemia. And just like in yeast, people with different genetic backgrounds may do better or worse when both copies of their GALT gene are mutated.  

GAL7 and GALT encode an enzyme, galactose-1-phosphate uridyl transferase, that breaks down the sugar galactose. If people with this mutation eat galactose, the toxic compound galactose-1-phosphate accumulates; this can cause serious symptoms or even death. The same is often true for yeast with a mutated GAL7 gene.

Ideally we would want to be able to predict how severe the symptoms of galactosemia would be, based on a patient’s genetic background. So far, though, it’s been a challenge to identify comprehensively the whole set of genes that affect a given human phenotype. Which is why Sirr and colleagues turned to our friend S. cerevisiae to study alleles affecting the highly conserved galactose utilization pathway.

The researchers started with two very divergent yeast strains, one isolated from a canyon in Israel and the other from an oak tree in Pennsylvania. Both were able to utilize galactose normally, but the scientists made them “galactosemic” by knocking out the GAL7 gene in each.

After mating the strains to create a galactosemic diploid, the researchers needed to let the strain sporulate and isolate haploid progeny. But its sporulation efficiency wasn’t very good, only about 20%. And they needed to have millions of progeny to get a comprehensive look at genetic backgrounds.

To isolate a virtually pure population of haploid progeny, Sirr and coworkers came up with a neat trick. They added a green fluorescent protein gene to the strain and put it under control of a sporulation-specific promoter.

Cells that were undergoing sporulation would fluoresce and could be separated from the others by fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). The FACS technique also allowed sorting by size, so they could select complete tetrads containing four haploid spores and discard incomplete products of meiosis such as dyads containing only two spores.

After using this step to isolate tetrads, the researchers broke them open to free the spores and put them on Petri dishes containing galactose—an amount that was enough to kill either of the parent strains. One in a thousand spores was able to survive the galactose toxicity. Recombination between the divergent alleles from the two parent strains somehow came up with the right combination of alleles for a survival sauce.

Sirr and colleagues individually genotyped 247 of the surviving progeny, using partial genome sequencing. They mapped QTLs (quantitative trait loci) to identify genomic regions associated with survival. If they found a particular allele in the survivors more often than would be expected by chance, that was a clue that a gene in that region had a role in survival.

We don’t have the space here to do justice to the details of the results, but we can summarize by saying that a whole variety of factors contributed to the galactose tolerance of the surviving progeny. They had three major QTLs, regions where multiple alleles were over- or under-represented. The QTLs were centered on genes involved in sugar metabolism: GAL3 and GAL80, both involved in transcriptional regulation of galactose utilization genes, and three hexose transporter genes (HXT3, HXT6, and HXT7) that are located very close to each other.

It makes sense that all of these genes could affect galactosemia. Gal3p and Gal80p are regulators of the pathway, so alleles of these genes that make galactose catabolism less active would result in less production of toxic intermediates. And although the hexose transporters don’t transport galactose as their preferred substrates, they may induce the pathway by allowing a little galactose into the cell. So less active alleles of these transporters would also result in less galactose catabolism.

Another event that occurred in over half of the surviving progeny was aneuploidy (altered chromosome number), most often an extra copy of chromosome XIII where the GAL80 gene is located. The same three QTL peaks were also seen in the disomic strains, though, leading the authors to conclude that the extra chromosome alone was not sufficient for survival of galactosemia.

And finally, some rare non-genetic events contributed to survival of the progeny. The authors discovered this when they found that the galactose tolerance of some of the progeny wasn’t stably inherited. This could result from differences in protein levels between individual cells. For example, if one cell happened to have lower levels of a galactose transporter than other cells, it might be more resistant to galactose.

The take-home message here is that there are many different ways to get to the same phenotype. The new method that they developed allowed the researchers to see rare combinations of alleles in large numbers of individual progeny, in contrast to other genotyping methods where progeny are pooled and only the average can be detected.

For any disease or trait the ultimate goal is to identify all the alleles of all the genes that influence it. Imagine the impact on human health, if we could look at a person’s genotype and accurately predict their phenotype!

So far, it’s been a challenge to identify these large sets of human genes in a comprehensive way. But this approach using yeast could provide a feast of data to help us understand monogenic diseases like galactosemia, cystic fibrosis, porphyria, and many more, and maybe even more complex traits and diseases. Now that’s an appetizing prospect for human disease researchers. Buon appetito!

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

Runaway Polymerases Can Wreak Havoc in Cells

October 16, 2014

A train without working brakes can cause a lot of destruction if it careens off the tracks. And it turns out that a runaway RNA polymerase II (pol II) can cause a lot of damage too.  But it doesn’t cause destruction, so much as disease.

Working brakes are important for both large and small machines, including RNA polymerase. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Unlike a train, which has its brakes built right in, pol II has to count on outside factors to stop it in its tracks. And one of these brakes in both humans and yeast is a helicase: Sen1 in yeast and Senataxin, the product of the SETX gene, in humans. 

Mutations in SETX are associated with two devastating neurological diseases: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis type 4 (ALS4) and ataxia oculomotor apraxia type 2 (AOA2), both of which strike children and adolescents.  One idea is that these mutations may short circuit the brakes on pol II, causing it to keep on transcribing after it shouldn’t. And this is just what Chen and colleagues found in a new paper in GENETICS.

The researchers used the simple yet informative yeast model system to look at some of these mutations, and found that they disrupted the helicase function of Sen1 and caused abnormal read-through of some transcriptional terminators.  Looks like bad brakes may indeed have a role in causing these devastating diseases.

Some human proteins can function perfectly well in yeast. Unfortunately, Senataxin isn’t one of those; it could not rescue a sen1 null mutant yeast, so Chen and coworkers couldn’t study Senataxin function directly in yeast. But because Senataxin and Sen1 share significant homology,  they could instead study the yeast protein and make inferences about Senataxin from it.

First, they sliced and diced the SEN1 gene to see which regions were essential to its function. They found that the most important part, needed to keep yeast cells alive, was the helicase domain. But this wasn’t the only key region.

Some flanking residues on either side were also important, but either the N-terminal flanking region or the C-terminal flanking region was sufficient. Looking into those flanking regions more closely, the researchers found that each contained a nuclear localization sequence (NLS) that directed Sen1 into the nucleus. This makes perfect sense of course…the brakes need to go where the train is!  If we don’t put the brakes on the train, it won’t matter how well they work, the train still won’t stop.

These flanking sequences appeared to do more than direct the protein to the nuclear pol II, though.  When the authors tried to use an NLS derived from the SV40 virus instead, they found that it couldn’t completely replace the function of these flanking regions even though it did efficiently direct Sen1 to the nucleus.

Next the researchers set out to study the disease mutations found in patients affected with the neurological disease AOA2.  They re-created the equivalents of 13 AOA2-associated SETX mutations, all within the helicase domain, at the homologous codons of yeast SEN1.

Six of the 13 mutations completely destroyed the function of Sen1; yeast cells could not survive when carrying only the mutant gene. When these mutant proteins were expressed from a plasmid in otherwise wild-type cells, five of them had a dominant negative effect, interfering with transcription termination at a reporter gene. This lends support to the idea that Sen1 is important for transcription termination and that the disease mutations affected this function.

The remaining 7 of the 13 mutant genes could support life as the only copy of SEN1 in yeast. However, 5 of the mutant strains displayed heat-sensitive growth, and 4 of these showed increased transcriptional readthrough.

Taken together, these results show that the helicase domains of Senataxin and Sen1 are extremely important for their function. They also show that Sen1 can be used as a model to discover the effects of individual disease mutations in SETX, as long as those mutations are within regions that are homologous between the two proteins.

It still isn’t clear exactly how helicase activity can put the brakes on that RNA polymerase train, nor why runaway RNA polymerase can have such specific effects on the human nervous system. These questions need more investigation, and the yeast model system is now in place to help with that.

So, although it might not be obvious to the lay person (or politician) that brainless yeast cells could tell us anything about neurological diseases, in fact they can. Yeast may not have brains, but they definitely have RNA polymerase. And once we learn how the brakes work for pol II in yeast cells, we may have a clue how to repair them in humans.

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

Special Delivery for Cytotoxic Proteins

August 21, 2014

Like the USPS delivering a letter, yeast Cue5p & human Tollip recognize the ubiquitin “stamp” on cytotoxic proteins and present them to the “addressee” Atg8p. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Say you want to send a letter to your friend on the other side of the country. First off you’ll need to put the right address and postage on the envelope. Then you’ll need the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to take your letter and deliver it to the right person. The stamp tells the USPS to deliver the letter, and the address indicates where it should be delivered (unimpeded by snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, of course!).

It turns out something similar happens in human cells with aggregated proteins. Aggregated proteins are “stamped” by attachment of the small protein ubiquitin and “addressed” to the Atg8 protein. Atg8p triggers the aggregated proteins’ incorporation into autophagosomes for eventual degradation in the lysosome.

And just as it can be devastating if your mail doesn’t get to where it needs to go, so too can it be devastating for these aggregates to accumulate instead of being properly delivered. A buildup of these aggregates is a big factor in Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.

Enter the cellular USPS. Just as is the case for a prepared letter, the human cell has a service that delivers the ubiquinated proteins to the autophagosome, in the form of the protein adaptor p62 (SQSTM1) and its relative, NBR1.

These adaptor proteins can act as a postal service because they recognize both the aggregated proteins’ stamp (ubiquitin) and their addressee (Atg8p). Specifically, they each possess an ubiquitin-conjugate binding domain (UBA) and an Atg8-interacting motif (AIM). The protein p62 in particular has been shown to associate with protein aggregates linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s disease.

In a new paper published in Cell, Lu et al. asked whether there is a link between the ubiquitin and autophagy systems in yeast. If so, yeast might provide some clues about diseases like Huntington’s. Proteins stamped with ubiquitin are known to be addressed to the proteasome for degradation in yeast, but no link between ubiquitination and autophagy had previously been seen, even though many central components of autophagy were actually first described in yeast.

Indeed, the authors showed that cells specifically deficient in the autophagy pathway (atg8∆, atg1∆, or atg7∆), accumulated ubiquitin conjugates under autophagy-inducing conditions. This suggests that the ubiquitin and autophagy pathways are connected in yeast, as is the case for humans.

Next, the researchers looked to see if there is an adaptor in yeast analogous to p62 in humans. When they pulled down proteins that bind yeast Atg8p under starvation conditions, they found ubiquitin conjugates and, using mass spectrometry, further identified peptides from a few other proteins – one of which was Cue5p.

Could Cue5p, like p62 in humans, be the postal service that recognizes both stamped ubiquitin conjugates and the addressee Atg8p in yeast? Strikingly, Cue5p had both a CUE domain that binds ubiquitin and an Atg8p-interacting motif (AIM). The authors confirmed in vivo that Cue5p binds ubiquitin conjugates and Atg8p using these domains, particularly under starvation conditions. They also showed that it acts specifically at the stage of ubiquitin-conjugate recognition and on aggregated proteins, without affecting the process of autophagy itself.

Given that Cue5p functions similarly to p62 and p62 is known to associate with protein aggregates involved in neurodegenerative disease, Lu et al. were quick to look for Cue5p substrates. Analyzing ubiquitin-conjugated proteins that accumulated in cue5 mutant cells, they identified 24 different proteins. Although these 24 Cue5p substrates had diverse functions, the common thread was that many had a tendency to aggregate under certain conditions such as high temperature.

Could Cue5p then actually facilitate removal of cytotoxic protein aggregates in neurodegenerative diseases? Indeed, the authors showed that CUE5 helped clear cytotoxic variants of the human huntingtin protein (Htt-96Q) when it was expressed in yeast, and that Htt-96Q is ubiquitinated in yeast.

These experiments started with an observation in human cells that prompted discovery of an analogous system and adaptor protein in yeast. Now the authors turned the tables and used yeast to look for new adaptor proteins in human cells. Using bioinformatics, they identified a human CUE-domain protein, Tollip, which, although different in its domain organization from Cue5p, contains 2 AIM motifs.

To make a long story (and a lot of work!) short, they showed that Tollip binds both human Atg8p and ubiquitin conjugates and clears cytotoxic variants of huntingtin in human cells. Expressed in yeast, it similarly binds ubiquitin conjugates and Atg8p and suppresses the hypersensitivity of cue5∆ cells to the variant huntingtin protein Htt-96Q. So Tollip is a newly defined adaptor protein and functional homolog of Cue5p!

Letter carriers of one sort or another have been around for as long as human civilization has existed, from homing pigeons to FedEx. Now we know that for even longer, cells from yeast to human have been using similar ways to recognize stamped proteins and deliver them to the right address. And once again, yeast has helped us understand the inner secrets of human cells.

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

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