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New & Noteworthy

Old Genes, New Tricks

March 14, 2013

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, or so the saying goes. But imagine you found that your old dog knew a complicated trick and had been doing it all her life, right under your nose, without your ever noticing it! You’d be surprised – about as surprised as the Hinnebusch group at NIH when they discovered that some long-studied S. cerevisiae genes had an unexpected trick of their own.

old dog

Don’t underestimate old dogs or well studied genes. Sometimes they’ll surprise you!

They were working on the VPS* (vacuolar protein sorting) genes. While known for a very long time to be important in protein trafficking within the cell, Gaur and coworkers found that two of these genes, VPS15 and VPS34, play an important role in RNA polymerase II (pol II) transcription elongation too. Now there is an unexpected new trick…like your dog learning to use a litter box!

There had been a few hints in recent years that the VPS genes, especially VPS15 and VPS34, might have something to do with transcription. Following up on these, the researchers tested whether vps15 and vps34 null mutants were sensitive to the drugs 6-azauracil and mycophenolic acid. Sensitivity to these drugs is a hallmark of known transcription elongation factors. Sure enough, they were as sensitive as a mutant in SPT4, encoding a known transcription elongation factor. Further experiments with reporter genes and pol II occupancy studies showed that pol II had trouble getting all the way to the end of its transcripts in the vps mutant strains.

There was a bit of genetic interaction evidence that had suggested that there might be a connection between VPS15, VPS34, and the NuA4 histone acetyltransferase complex. This is important, since NuA4 is known to modify chromatin to help transcription elongation. Looking more closely, the researchers found that Vps34p and Vps15p were needed for recruitment of NuA4 to an actively transcribing reporter gene.

Other lines of investigation all pointed to the conclusion that these VPS proteins have a role in transcription. They were required for positioning of several transcribing genes at the nuclear pore, could be cross-linked to the coding sequences of transcribing genes, and could be seen localizing at nucleus-vacuole junctions near nuclear pores.

One appealing hypothesis to explain this has to do with what both genes actually do. Vps34p synthesizes phosphatidylinositol 3-phosphate (PI(3)P) in membranes, while Vps15p is a protein kinase required for Vps34p function. The idea is that when Vps15p and Vps34p produce PI(3)P at the nuclear pore near transcribing genes, this recruits the NuA4 complex and other transcription cofactors that can bind phosphoinositides like PI(3)P. There are hints that this mechanism may also be at work in mammalian and plant cells.

There’s a lot more work to be done to nail down the exact role of these proteins in transcription. But this story is a good reminder to researchers that new and interesting discoveries may always be hiding in plain sight.

* These genes were also called VPL for Vacuolar Protein Localization and VPT for Vacuolar Protein Targeting

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