New & Noteworthy

Esa1p, the Balancing Artist

July 15, 2014

In the art of rock balancing, the artist positions large rocks with exquisite precision. If he or she succeeds, the rocks counterbalance each other and stay in seemingly impossible positions to make a surprising and beautiful sculpture. But a little uneven pressure is enough to make the whole thing collapse.

Esa1p keeps the acetylation state of the cell as precisely balanced as these rocks. Image from Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that the cellular acetylation state is just as precisely balanced. In a new GENETICS paper, Torres-Machorro and Pillus identify Esa1p, an acetyltransferase, as the balancing artist in Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells.

Acetylation is an important type of protein modification. Histones, the proteins that interact with DNA to provide structure to chromosomes, are acetylated by histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and deacetylated by histone deacetylases (HDACs). Some HATs and HDACs also act on non-histone proteins.

The acetylation state in a cell is a dynamic process.  All those HATs are adding acetyl groups at the same time that HDACs are removing them.  The final level of acetylation depends on the activities of each of these classes of proteins.

Acetylation of histones has been associated with increases in gene expression and deacetylation with decreases.  So to keep gene expression levels in balance, it is very important to keep acetylation balanced as well.  Throwing acetylation patterns just a bit out of whack can have profound consequences on global gene expression that can ultimately lead to cell death. 

The authors focused on one particular HAT, Esa1p, that acetylates histones H4 and H2A and also has non-histone targets. They were intrigued by the fact that yeast cells cannot survive without Esa1p, since no other HAT or HDAC subunit is essential in yeast.

An obvious explanation for lethality is that losing this protein leads to too low a level of acetylation.  They reasoned that if they also knocked out an HDAC, then the overall acetylation levels might increase and so rescue the esa1 null mutant.  And they were right.

Using a plasmid-shuffling method, they created various double mutant strains of esa1 and HDAC genes, and found that a strain that was mutant in esa1 and also in either the SDS3 or DEP1 genes was viable. SDS3 and DEP1 both encode subunits of the Rpd3L HDAC complex.

Torres-Machorro and Pillus next characterized the esa1 sds3 double mutant further.  They found that although the sds3 mutation suppressed the inviability of the esa1 mutant, it did not suppress other phenotypes such as sensitivity to high temperature and DNA damaging agents.

The authors found that the sds3 mutation subtly increased histone H4 acetylation, which was low in the absence of Esa1p.  However, acetylation levels of a different histone, H3, remained high even in the absence of Esa1p. This suggested that the fundamental problem in the esa1 null mutant was an imbalance in the global state of histone acetylation.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers used a variety of different genetic methods to tweak the balance of cellular acetylation in the esa1 sds3 mutant. They created mutations in histones H3 and H4 that made it seem as if acetylation was low or high, and they also mutated other genes for HDAC subunits. It is as if they were passers-by who decided to poke at a balanced rock sculpture to see what it took to bring the whole thing down.

Although the details are too numerous to report here, the results showed that by using these genetic methods to tweak the overall acetylation state of the cell, the fitness of the esa1 sds3 strain could be improved: phenotypes such as slow growth, sensitivity to high temperature or DNA damaging agents, or cell cycle defects were suppressed to some extent by the various manipulations.  This lends support to the hypothesis that Esa1p is the master balancer of acetylation levels in the cell and that this is its essential function.

This balancing act may happen in human cells too. Esa1p has a human ortholog, TIP60, that has been implicated in cancer and other diseases. Like Esa1p, TIP60 is essential and is involved in the DNA damage response.

So yeast teaches us that the acetylation of proteins is balanced on a knife’s edge.  Even the slightest changes can lead to a collapse in global gene regulation, which can have catastrophic effects like cancer. All that we learn about Esa1p, the acetylation balancing artist, may have much broader implications for human health.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: yeast model for human disease, histone acetylation, Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Like People, Prions Need Intimate Contact to Spread

June 19, 2014

In the Matrix Trilogy, the delicate balance of a virtual world is upset by a rogue computer program that goes by the name of Agent Smith.  This program finds and touches other agent programs, converting them into copies of itself.  Eventually, all the agent programs are copies of Agent Smith and only the hero Neo can save humanity in an epic battle within the virtual world of the Matrix.

Prions are the Agent Smiths of cells. They convert healthy proteins into prions just by touching them. Image by Marcin Wichary

A new study out in GENETICS by Li and Du provides additional evidence that prions in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae work similarly to Agent Smith, in that they spread through a direct contact model.  These prions are proteins that have entered a rogue conformation, and they end up converting all copies of the same protein into a similar rogue conformation.  The proteins change from a hardworking Agent Smith trying to do its job into something that mucks up the working of a cell.  And the results, at least in humans, can be as catastrophic for the cell as Agent Smith was for the Matrix. 

Mad cow disease, for example, is caused by prions converting the prion protein (PrP) in the brain cells of people from a useful conformation to a dangerous one that spreads.  As the conformation spreads throughout the cell, these prions form amyloid fibrils that eventually kill the cell.  When enough brain cells are killed, the person dies.

The authors chose to work in yeast because unlike in people, there are multiple examples of proteins in yeast that can go prion.  The list includes Sup35p, Ure2p, Rnq1p, Swi1p, Cyc8p, Mot3p, Sfp1p, Mod5p and Nup100p.  As you might guess from the sheer number of these prion-ready proteins, prions actually do more than kill a cell in yeast; they can serve useful functions. Scientists have yet to identify any useful functions for the prion form of PrP in people. 

Having multiple prions in a cell allowed Li and Du to perform some experiments to try to distinguish between two models of prion conformation spreading.  In the first, called the cross-seeding model, the prion acts very much like Agent Smith in that it needs to contact a “healthy” protein to convert it into a prion.  In the second model, the titration model, factors in the cell that prevent prion formation are titrated out when prions form.  As the factors are taken out of commission, prions are free to form.

The main evidence in this study that supports the cross-seeding model has to do with the localization of pre-existing prions during the de novo formation of a new prion.  Li and Du found that the prion [SWI+] localized to newly forming [PSI+] prions but not to already formed [PSI+] prions.  This is not the result we would expect if prion formation were due to titrating out of inhibitors of prion formation.  If that were the mechanism, then there would be no reason for [SWI+] to colocalize with newly forming [PSI+]. These experiments are like having a google map of the Matrix where we could see Smiths converting other agents by touch and then moving on and touching other agents.

Work like this is important for helping to find treatments for prion associated diseases and, perhaps, other amyloid fibril forming diseases like Huntington’s or Alzheimer’s.  Scientists need to focus on the amyloid fiber forming proteins themselves instead of trying, for example, to ramp up the activity of factors that inhibit formation.  Scientists probably need to eliminate Agent Smith to prevent the destruction of the Matrix and all of mankind.

This is how prions turn other proteins into copies of themselves:

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: prions, Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Yeast: A One Man Band for Finding New Drug Leads

May 15, 2014

Yeast has been turned into a one man band that makes and assays its own drug leads. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Imagine you are in a band and the only instruments you have are guitars.  Yes, you can play some beautiful music, but there will be a whole lot of music that your band won’t be able to play. 

In some ways, finding chemical leads to develop into drugs is similar to an all guitar band.  The compounds in available libraries all tend to have a lot in common.  They are like a vast array of subtly different guitars.

In a new study, Klein and coworkers use synthetic biology to have the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae make more varied libraries on its own.  As an added bonus, the authors also use the yeast to assay the new leads.  Not only have they expanded the range of instruments available to your band, but they’ve also made it so you can play all the instruments.  You are now a one man band!

The first step in all of this is to have an assay that can easily pick out the important leads.  Klein and coworkers use a galactose inducible Brome Mosaic Virus (BMV) system they had previously developed.

In this system, if one of the viral genes is on, then it produces a fusion protein that includes the Ura3 protein.  When the URA3 gene is expressed, yeast die in the presence of 5-fluoroorotic acid (5-FOA).  So any yeast that can make a compound that can inhibit viral expression will survive in 5-FOA.

The next step in creating these in vivo libraries was to randomly assemble various biochemical pathways into yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) and to transform them into yeast.  These pathways were chosen because they have yielded important compounds before or because they come from medically important beasts.  This work was described in detail in a previous paper.

Specifically, Klein and coworkers randomly combined cDNA genes from eight biochemical pathways into YACs and transformed them into the BMV replication yeast strain.  They found 74 compounds that allowed the yeast to survive in the presence of 5-FOA.  Of these, 28 had activity in a secondary BMV assay. 

A close look at the 74 compounds showed that by and large, most had characteristics that put them in the right ballpark to be useful leads.  They had low molecular weight and the right hydrophobicity, and were chemically complex. In addition, many could easily be improved chemically (this last point is called optimizability).  Most importantly, they were pretty unique from a drug lead point of view. 

Over 75% of the compounds resembled nothing in known libraries.  And the compounds were not similar to one another.  Klein and coworkers had created a wide range of instruments other than guitars.

Of course, keeping a yeast strain alive is hardly reason to look for a new drug.  But that isn’t all these compounds can do.  At least some of these leads show excellent activity against two viruses related to BMV, Dengue and hepatitis C, and one looks particularly promising. 

With a random combination of genes from a variety of biochemical pathways, yeast has been coaxed into synthesizing chemical leads that can target two medically relevant viruses.  Scientists should be able to use a similar approach to tackle other diseases.  All they need is a yeast strain with the right assay.

Yeast can make our bread rise, get us drunk, and now maybe cure us of disease.  Is there anything yeast can’t do?  Well, they still can’t play a guitar. 

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: drug discovery, Saccharomyces cerevisiae

A Heartfelt Need for Copper

March 06, 2014

Imagine the heater at your house is run by a homemade copper-zinc battery.  You are counting on a delivery of a copper solution that will keep the thing going.  Unfortunately it fails to come, which means the battery doesn’t work and you are left out in the cold. 

This copper might one day help people with certain diseases and we have yeast to thank for helping us find it. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Turns out that something similar can happen in cells too.  The respiratory chain that makes most of our energy needs copper to work.  In a recent study, Ghosh and coworkers showed that if Coa6p doesn’t do its job delivering copper to the respiratory chain, the cell can’t make enough energy.

This isn’t just interesting biology.  In this same study, the researchers showed that mutations in the COA6 gene cause devastating disease in humans and zebrafish. And their discovery that added copper can cure the “disease” in yeast just might have therapeutic applications for humans.

The respiratory chain is a group of large enzyme complexes that sit in the mitochondrial inner membrane and pass electrons from one to another during cellular respiration. This process generates most of the energy that a cell needs.  Hundreds of genes, in both the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes, are involved in keeping this respiratory chain working.

Yeast has been the ideal experimental organism for studying these genes, because it can survive just fine without respiration. If it can’t respire for any reason, yeast simply switches over to fermentation, generating the alcohol and CO2 byproducts that we know and love.

Human cells aren’t as versatile though. Genes involved in respiration can cause mitochondrial respiratory chain disease (MRCD) when mutated. This is one of the most common kinds of genetic defect, with over 100 different genes known so far that can cause this phenotype.

Ghosh and colleagues wondered whether there were as-yet-unidentified human genes involved in maintaining the respiratory chain. They reasoned that any such genes would be highly conserved across species, because they are so important to life, and that the proteins they encoded would localize to mitochondria.

One of the candidates, C1orf31, caught their eye for a couple of reasons.  First, some variations in this gene had been found in the DNA of a MRCD patient.  And second, the yeast homolog, COA6, encoded a mitochondrial protein that had been implicated in assembly of one of the respiratory complexes, Complex IV or cytochrome c oxidase.

They first did some more detailed characterization of COA6 in yeast.  They were able to verify that the coa6 null mutant had reduced respiratory growth because it had lower levels of fully assembled Complex IV.

They also looked to see what happens in human cell culture.  When they knocked down expression of the human homolog, they also saw less assembly of Complex IV. This suggested that the function of this protein is conserved across species.

Next they turned to a sequencing study of an MRCD patient who had, sadly, died of a heart defect (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) before reaching his first birthday. The sequence showed a mutation in a conserved cysteine-containing motif of COA6. To see whether this might be the cause of the defect, they created the analogous mutation in yeast COA6. The mutant protein was completely nonfunctional in yeast.

To nail down the physiological role of COA6 in a multicellular organism, they turned to zebrafish. The embryos of these fish are transparent, so it’s easy to follow organ development. Given the phenotype, the fact that they can live without a functional cardiovascular system for a few days after fertilization was important too.

When the researchers knocked down expression of COA6 in zebrafish, they found that the embryos’ hearts failed to develop normally and they eventually died. The abnormal development of the fish hearts paralleled that seen in the human MRCD patient carrying the C1orf31/COA6 mutation. And reduced levels of Complex IV were present in the fish embryos.

Going back to yeast for one more experiment, Ghosh and colleagues decided to see whether Coa6p might be involved in delivering copper to Complex IV. They knew that Complex IV uses copper ions as a cofactor, and furthermore Coa6p had similarities to several other yeast proteins that are known to be involved in the copper delivery.

They tested this by supplying the coa6 null mutant with large amounts of copper. Sure enough, its respiratory growth defect and Complex IV assembly problems were reversed.  The delivery of copper kept the energy flowing in these cells. And this result showed that Coa6p is involved in getting copper to Complex IV.

These experiments showcase the need for model organism research even in the face of ever more sophisticated techniques applied to human cells. The mutation in human C1orf31/COA6 was discovered in a next-generation sequencing study, but yeast genetics established the relationship between the mutation and its phenotype. The zebrafish system allowed the researchers to follow the effects of the mutation in an embryo from the earliest moments after fertilization. And the rescue of the yeast mutant by copper supplementation offers an intriguing therapeutic possibility for some types of MRCD. Just another testament to the awesome power of model organism research!

YeastMine now lets you explore human homologs and disease phenotypes.  Enter “COA6” into the template Yeast Gene -> OMIM Human Homolog(s) -> OMIM Disease Phenotype(s) to link to the Gene page for human COA6 (the connection between COA6 and disease is too new to be represented in OMIM).  To browse some diseases related to mitochondrial function, enter “mitochondrial” into the template OMIM Disease Phenotype(s) -> Human Gene(s) -> Yeast Homolog(s).

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: yeast model for human disease, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, zebrafish, respiration

Human Disease & Fungal Homologs in YeastMine

March 04, 2014

You can now use SGD’s advanced search tool, YeastMine, to find the human homolog(s) of your favorite yeast gene and their corresponding disease associations. Or, begin with your favorite human gene or disease keyword and retrieve the yeast counterparts of the relevant gene(s). As an example, you can search for the S. cerevisiae homologs of all human genes associated with disorders that contain the keyword “diabetes” (view search).

We have recently loaded data from OMIM (Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man) into our fast, flexible search resource, YeastMine, and provided 3 predefined queries (templates) that make it simple to perform the above searches. Newly updated HomoloGene, Ensembl, TreeFam, and Panther data sets are used to define the homology between S. cerevisiae and human genes. The results table provides identifiers and standard names for the yeast and human genes, as well as OMIM gene and disease identifiers and names. As with other YeastMine templates, results can be saved as lists and analyzed further. You can also now create a list of human names and/or identifiers using the updated Create Lists feature that allows you to specify the organism representing the genes in your list. The query for yeast homologs can then be made against this list.

In addition to human disease homologs, we have incorporated fungal homolog data for 24 additional species of fungi. You can now query for the fungal homologs of a given S. cerevisiae gene using the template “Gene –> Fungal Homologs.” This fungal homology data comes from various sources including FungiDB, the Candida Gene Order Browser (CGOB), and PomBase, and the results link directly to the corresponding gene pages in the relevant databases, including Candida Genome Database (CGD) and Aspergillus Genome Database (AspGD).

All of the new templates that query human and fungal homolog data can be found on the YeastMine Home page under the new tab “Homology.” These templates complement the template “Gene → Non-Fungal and S. cerevisiae Homologs” that retrieves homologs of S. cerevisiae genes in human, rat, mouse, worm, fly, mosquito, and zebrafish.

Watch the Human Disease & Fungal Homologs in SGD’s YeastMine tutorial (below) to learn how to find and use these new templates.

Categories: New Data, Yeast and Human Disease

How Yeast May One Day Help Michael J. Fox

October 31, 2013

Folks, yeast has been on a roll lately with regard to helping to understand and finding treatments for human disease. Last week we talked about how synthetic lethal screens may find new, previously unrecognized druggable targets for cancer. And this week it is Parkinson’s disease.

One day, perhaps, most people will marvel at what a huge role yeast had in finding a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. We won’t be at all surprised. Image by Thomas Atilla Lewis.

Now of course yeast can’t get the traditional sort of Parkinson’s disease …it doesn’t have a brain.  But it shares enough biology with us that when it expresses a mutant version of α-synuclein (α-syn) that is known to greatly increase a person’s risk for developing Parkinson’s disease, the yeast cell shows many of the same phenotypes as a diseased neuron.  The yeast acts as a stand-in for the neuron.

In a new study out in Science, Tardiff and coworkers use this yeast model to identify a heretofore unknown target for Parkinson’s disease in a sort of reverse engineering process. They screened around 190,000 compounds and looked for those that rescued toxicity in this yeast model. They found one significant hit, an N-aryl-benzimidazole (NAB) compound. Working backwards from this hit they identified its target as Rsp5p, a Nedd4 E3 ubiquitin ligase. 

The authors then went on to confirm this finding in C. elegans and rat neuron models where this compound halted and even managed to reverse neuronal damage. And for the coup de grace, Chung and coworkers showed in a companion paper that the compound worked in human neurons too. But not just any human neurons.

The authors used two sets of neurons derived from induced pluripotent cells from a single patient.  One set of neurons had a mutation in the α-syn gene which is known to put patients at a high risk of Parkinson’s disease-induced dementia.  The other set had the mutation corrected.  The compound they identified in yeast reversed some of the effects in the neurons with the α-syn mutation without significantly affecting the corrected neurons.  Wow.

What makes this even more exciting is that many people thought you couldn’t target α-syn with a small molecule. But as the studies here show, you can target an E3 ubiquitin ligase that can overcome the effects of mutant α-syn.  It took an unbiased screen in yeast to reveal a target that would have taken much, much longer to find in human cells. 

The mutant α-syn protein ends up in inclusion bodies that disrupt endosomal traffic in the cell.  The NAB compound that the authors discovered restored endosomal transport and greatly decreased the numbers of these inclusion bodies.  Juicing up Rsp5 seemed to clear out the mutant protein.

The next steps are those usually associated with finding a lead compound—chemical modification to make it safer and more effective, testing in clinical trial and then, if everything goes well, helping patients with Parkinson’s disease.  And that may not be all.

The α-syn protein isn’t just involved in Parkinson’s disease.  The dementia associated with this protein is part of a larger group of disorders called dementia with Lewy bodies that affects around 1.3 million people in the US.  If everything goes according to plan, many of these patients may one day thank yeast for their treatment.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: alpha-synuclein, yeast model for human disease, ubiquitin ligase, Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Using Yeast to Find Better Cancer Treatments

October 24, 2013

Current cancer treatments are a lot like trying to destroy a particular red plate by letting a bull loose in a china shop.  Yes, the plate is eventually smashed, but the collateral damage is pretty severe.

Yeast may help us find ways to treat cancers without all that collateral damage.

Ideally we would want something a bit more discriminating than an enraged bull.  We might want an assassin that can fire a single bullet that destroys that red plate. 

One way to identify the assassin that can selectively find and destroy cancer cells is by taking advantage of the idea of synthetic lethal mutations.  “Synthetic lethal” is a genetic term that sounds a lot more complicated than it really is.  Basically the idea is that mutating certain pairs of genes kills a cell, although mutating each gene by itself has little or no effect.

A synthetic lethal strategy seems tailor made for cancer treatments.  After all, a big part of what happens when a cell becomes cancerous is that it undergoes a series of mutations.  If scientists can find and target these mutated genes’ synthetically lethal partners, then the cancer cell will die but normal cells will not.

This is just what Deshpande and coworkers set out to do in a new study in the journal Cancer Research.  They first scanned a previous screen that looked at 5.4 million pairwise interactions in the yeast S. cerevisiae to find the best synthetic lethal pairs. They found 116,000 pairs that significantly affected cell growth only if both genes in the pair were mutated.

A deeper look into the data revealed that 24,000 of these pairs had human orthologs for both genes. In 500 of these pairs, at least one of the partner genes had been shown to be mutated in certain cancers. Using a strict set of criteria (such as the strength and reproducibility of the synthetic lethal effect, and the presence of clear one-to-one orthology between yeast and human), the authors narrowed these 500 down to 21 pairs that they decided to study in mammalian cell lines.

When the authors knocked down the expression of both genes in these 21 gene pairs in a mammalian cell line, they found six that significantly affected growth.  They focused the rest of the work on the strongest two pairs, SMARCB1/PMSA4 and ASPSCR1/PSMC2.  These mammalian gene pairs correspond to the yeast orthologs SNF5/PRE9 and UBX4/RPT1, respectively.

The authors identified two separate cancer cell lines that harbored mutated versions of the SMARCB1 gene.  When this gene’s synthetic lethal partner, PMSA4, was downregulated in these cancer lines, the growth of each cell line was severely compromised. The same was not true for a cell line that had a wild type version of SMARCB1—this cell line was not affected by downregulating PMSA4.  The authors used a synthetic lethal screen in yeast to identify a new cancer target which when downregulated selectively killed the cancer without killing “normal” cells.

This proof of principle set of experiments shows how the humble yeast may one day speed up the process of finding cancer treatments without all those nasty side effects (like vomiting, hair loss, anemia and so on).  Yeast screens can first be used to identify target genes and then perhaps also to find small molecules that affect the activity of those gene products.  Yeast may one day tame the raging bull in a china shop that is current cancer treatments.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: cancer, synthetic lethal, Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Yeast Winnows Down GWAS Hits in Autism

October 10, 2013

Separating the wheat from the chaff is a lot easier than figuring out which variants matter in a GWAS.

Cheap and easy genome sequencing has been both a blessing and a curse. We are able to find an incredible wealth of variation, but for the most part we have no easy way to tell whether a difference might contribute to a disease or not.

The poster child for this problem is autism. Lots of genome wide association studies (GWAS) have been done and lots of rare variants in lots of different genes have been found – unfortunately, way too many to pick out the ones that really matter.

Luckily our friend yeast can help. Various researchers have identified a number of variants in the human cation/proton antiporter gene NHE9 that associate with autism. In a new study, Kondapalli and coworkers used the NHE9 ortholog NHX1 from S. cerevisiae as an initial screen to identify which variants impact the activity of the NHE9 protein. They found that two of the three mutations they looked at compromised the activity of yeast Nhx1p.

They then set out to confirm these results in mammalian cells.  When they looked at protein activity in glial cells, they found that all three mutations compromised the activity of NHE9.  This is obviously different from what they found in yeast.

Now this doesn’t mean that yeast is useless for this approach (God forbid!).  No, instead it means that it is probably only useful for a subset of autism mutations.  Kondapalli and coworkers had suspected this, but apparently the subset is smaller than they initially thought.

The first thing they did was to generate a rough three dimensional map of the NHE9 protein in order to see which parts the two proteins shared.  The idea is that they could then do a quick screen in yeast with mutations that affect the shared structure.

While the structure of NHE9 has not been solved, we do have the structure of its distant bacterial relative, NhaA.  Kondapalli and coworkers aligned the two along with the yeast ortholog Nhx1p and identified conserved regions.

Three of the NHE9 mutations associated with autism—V176I, L236S, and S438P—were all predicted to be in shared, membrane-spanning parts of the protein.  The researchers introduced the equivalent mutations into NHX1—V167I, I222S, and A438P. 

 A yeast deleted for NHX1 grows poorly in high salt and low pH and also has increased sensitivity to hygromycin B, as compared to a yeast with a functioning NHX1.  Two of the mutant genes, carrying A438P or I222S, failed to rescue these growth defects.  The other mutant gene, with the V167I change, worked as well as wild type NHX1 at rescuing the yeast.  So at least in yeast, two of the three mutations appear to impact protein activity.

The next step was to see if the same was true in mammals.  Easier said than done!  Ideally they would want to investigate whether these mutations affected the protein in the cells where NHE9 is usually active.  Too bad no one knows this protein’s natural habitat.  This is why the researchers starting slicing mouse brains to figure out when and where the protein is expressed.

While we don’t have time or space to go into all the details here, Kondapalli and coworkers found that when and where in the brain NHE9 was expressed made sense as far as a possible contribution to autism.  They also found that glial cells had about 1.2 fold more NHE9 transcripts than did neuronal cells.  They therefore did their assays of protein activity in a type of glial cells called astrocytes.

While they couldn’t completely knock out NHE9 in mouse astrocytes, they were able to knock down its expression by over 80%.  When they added back the mutant NHE9 genes, they found that all three failed to mimic the effect of adding back wild type NHE9 to these cells.  This is different than what they found in yeast, where only two of the mutations impacted protein activity. 

When they went back to their 3D model, they saw that the mutation that differed, V167I, affected a less defined part of the structure.  This points to the fact that for the quick yeast screen to work, they need to be looking at parts of the protein where the structure is shared between the yeast and the human version.  In a perfect world they would have had crystal structures of each to work off of instead of having to kludge together a model.

In any event, this is the first step towards validating yeast as a quick screen for identifying mutations that can impact protein activity and so are good candidates for being involved in disease.  Yeast may help scientists separate the wheat from the chaff of GWAS and so help figure out how diseases happen and maybe help find treatments or even cures.  Well done yeast.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: yeast model for human disease, autism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Yeast Muad’Dib

October 02, 2013

At least yeast only had to deal with a lack of tryptophan!

Remember in Dune when Paul Muad’Dib took a sip of the “Water of Life” and needed weeks in a coma to turn it into something that let him survive and emerge even more powerful than before?  Turns out yeast sometimes have to do something similar.

Now of course the yeast aren’t consciously moving molecules around to deal with a poison like Paul did.  No, instead they sometimes need to transcribe low levels of a mutated gene over a long period of time to survive in a new environment.  

This process is called retromutagenesis.  The idea is that a cell gets a mutation that would allow it to survive and prosper in a new environment if only it could replicate its DNA.  Unfortunately the new environment is so unforgiving that the cell can’t replicate. 

The cell escapes this catch-22 by transcribing the gene with the mutation so that the mutant protein can get made.  Once enough of this protein is made, the cell manages to get up enough steam to power through a cell cycle.  Now the mutation is established and the yeast can make lots of mutant protein and happily chug along.

In a new study in the latest issue of GENETICS, Shockley and coworkers hypothesize that something like this is happening in their experiments.  They were studying oxidative damage to DNA and found that some of their mutants required many days before they could grow in the absence of tryptophan (trp).  They argue that these late arising revertants were due to the cells having to wait until retromutagenesis allowed enough functional Trp5p to be made so the cell could replicate.

The authors have created strains of yeast with various mutations in the TRP5 gene that cause the yeast to be unable to grow in the absence of trp.  What makes these strains so useful is that they are set up in such a way that six different, specific point reversions can result in a functional TRP5 gene.  They can then analyze any Trp+ revertants to see what types of damage lead to which type of mutations.

One of the first things the authors discovered was that oxidative damage caused all six different reversions.  While this was interesting, the specific mutation they wanted to focus on was a G to T transversion which occurs when G is converted to 8-oxoguanine.  This is why they focused on the trp5-A149C strain.

The main way that yeast cells deal with 8-oxoguanine is by removing it with the Ogg1 protein, a DNA glycosylase.  When Shockley and coworkers deleted this gene in their strain, the number of revertants increased by 20-fold.  From this they concluded that most of the revertants were the result of the misreplication of an 8-oxoguanine. 

This is where the yeast run into a problem.  In the absence of trp, the trp5 mutants do not replicate at all…they do not go through even one cell cycle.  But to revert to a functional TRP5 gene, this strain needs to go through a cell cycle.  This is why the authors think that the first step towards reversion is a mutation in the TRP5 transcript.

Consistent with this idea is the fact that the mutated G in this strain is on the transcribed strand and that this is important for high revertant frequencies.  It also helps to explain why revertants took so long to appear.  Basically there had to be a buildup of enough functional Trp5p to allow a single cell cycle to happen.  Then the G could be converted to a T and the yeast could happily grow.  In this specialized case, it looks like reversion is dependent on retromutagenesis. 

But retromutagenesis, also called transcriptional mutagenesis, doesn’t happen only in yeast cells.  It’s being studied as a possible way that all kinds of quiescent cells, such those in the process of becoming tumor cells, or bacteria whose growth has been stopped by an antibiotic, can mutate and escape the conditions that are restricting them. Our little friend may not save the human race from destruction like Paul did, but once again yeast is proving pretty darn useful in getting results that make a difference for human health.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease

Using Yeast to Find New Treatments for Huntington’s Disease

September 05, 2013

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a truly awful, inherited and ultimately fatal genetic disease.  People with this neurodegenerative disorder typically start having trouble with their coordination and displaying mild cognitive and psychiatric problems in mid-adulthood.  Their symptoms continue to worsen, with most of these folks passing away within 20 years of their diagnosis.  This disease strikes down adults in their prime.

Scientists have known for decades what causes HD—too many CAG repeats in the huntingtin (htt) gene.  What they haven’t been able to figure out is what to do about this misfolded protein.  To date, the treatment options are very limited.

I don’t always do an unbiased screen but when I do, I prefer yeast.

A new study out by Mason and coworkers has a chance to change all of that.  Using an unbiased screen in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, these authors were able to identify a class of proteins, the glutathione peroxidases, that when overexpressed protected yeast from the harmful effects of the mutant htt protein.  They then followed up and showed that these proteins had a similar effect in fruit fly and mouse HD cell models as well as in a whole fruit fly model.  And this isn’t even the exciting part.

There are druggable small molecules that when added to cells (or whole animals) can upregulate the activity of glutathione peroxidases.  The authors used one of these molecules, ebselen, and showed that it mimicked the effects of overexpressing various glutathione peroxidases in cells and, more importantly, in whole fruit flies.  When these flies were fed ebselen, their neurons degenerated at a much slower rate.  Mason and coworkers have identified a small molecule that can mitigate the effects of the mutant htt protein in model systems.

While we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves here, this is all pretty exciting news.  How cool would it be if one day people with HD lived longer, happier lives because of a drug identified using our favorite model organism?  (Pay attention NIH!)

Mason and coworkers looked in S. cerevisiae for open reading frames that, when overexpressed, would lower the toxicity of the mutant htt protein.  They identified 317 of these, and used a variety of bioinformatics tools to group them into different pathways and gene networks.

In the end, they decided to focus on two powerful suppressors, the glutathione peroxidases Gpx1p and Hyr1p (also known as Gpx3p), for a variety of different reasons. These proteins are powerful antioxidants, and oxidative stress is known to contribute to HD symptoms.  Also, these proteins aren’t already upregulated in patients with Huntington’s disease, suggesting that it might be possible to increase their activity using drug therapy.

Now of course yeast aren’t mammals, so Mason and coworkers needed to show that having extra glutathione peroxidase activity would help in mammalian cells too. And this is just what they did: adding a mouse version of glutathione peroxidase, mGPx1, suppressed cellular toxicity in mouse cells that overexpressed the mutant form of htt.

Next they tested whether activating glutathione peroxidases would have the same effect.  They focused specifically on a selenocysteine-containing molecule called ebselen because it is highly bioavailable, can cross the blood-brain barrier (critical for HD) and has been used in treating stroke and noise induced hearing loss. When added to the mouse HD model cell system, ebselen had very similar effects to overexpressing mGPx1.

So upregulating glutathione peroxidase activity by either overexpressing mGPx1 or adding the small molecule ebselen appears to help in a couple of different model cell systems.  But what about a whole animal?  Looks like it can help there too.

Mason and coworkers looked at HD in a fruit fly.  When they added mGPx1 to this model fly, various neurons in these flies were protected from the effects of HD.  And they got similar results when they fed these flies the molecule ebselen.

As a final experiment, the authors wanted to figure out whether glutathione peroxidases were really having their effect because of their antioxidant activity.  In one way it makes sense that this activity is why they are so effective at mitigating the effects of the mutant HD—scientists have known for a while that oxidative stress is a major contributor to symptoms of HD. But on the other hand no antioxidant therapies have worked to date for HD.  In fact, if anything they made matters worse.  So one thought was that there was something special about the antioxidant activity of these proteins.  For these experiments, they needed to go back to yeast.

The authors looked at a variety of antioxidant proteins, including superoxide dismutase, catalases, and glutathione reductases, and none protected the yeast from the effects of the mutant htt protein.  They then checked the effects of catalase and superoxide dismutase in the HD mouse cells, and again saw no effect.

It is well known that antioxidants negatively affect autophagy and that disrupting this process can make HD symptoms worse.  From this the authors reasoned that glutathione peroxidases were special because they were antioxidants that did not affect autophagy.  They provided support for their idea by showing that ebselen did not affect autophagy in yeast while a control antioxidant, N-acetylcysteine, did.

Once again, yeast shows why it is such an important tool in finding potential new treatments for human disease.  Without the unbiased screen, it’s difficult to imagine how scientists would have found this target. You can really only do this easily in a beast like yeast. 


Symptoms like these may one day be delayed because of the awesome power of yeast genetics.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight, Yeast and Human Disease