New & Noteworthy

Pulsating Yeast

November 19, 2015


A glass of tepid water will do little for a sprained ankle. Just like adding activators and repressors to a gene will have little effect. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes when you get a minor injury, doctors will recommend alternating heat and cold as a therapy. The heat opens things up and the cold shuts them back down again.

Now obviously it would be pretty useless to apply both at the same time. Adding a bit of lukewarm water to an injury is not going to be very helpful at all.

The same thing holds true for many genes. If activators and repressors all turned on at the same time, there wouldn’t be much of an effect on the expression of a gene regulated by both. It is no way to respond to something in the environment!

Instead, if you want a gene to go up and then go back down again, you’d have the activator turn on first, followed by the repressor. Another way to put this is you’d have a pulse where all of the activators activate their genes at once and then stop working followed by a pulse where all of the repressors work at once.

This is exactly what Lin and colleagues found in their recent study in Nature. There they looked at the effect of certain external stimuli on the timing of when the activator Msn2p activated genes and when the repressor Mig1p repressed genes in our favorite yeast S. cerevisiae. These transcription factors coregulate many of the same genes.

The authors found that in the presence of either lowered glucose concentrations or 100 mM NaCl, most of the Msn2p in the cell turned on first followed closely by the Mig1p repressors. In the absence of either stimulus, there was no coordination.

So there does seem to be a carefully choreographed dance between these two transcriptional regulators with these signals. But of course gene regulation is a bit more complex than a sprained ankle.

There may be situations where a cell wants both regulators to do their jobs at the same time. Sometimes lukewarm water may be just what the doctor ordered.

And this is what Lin and colleagues found with 2.5% ethanol. Under this condition, the pulses of the two regulators overlapped—both were on at the same time. Apparently different stimuli call for different responses which means different timing of transcription factor pulses.

The authors next wanted to get at why Mig1p repression lagged behind Msn2p activation. Since both transcription factors can only enter the nucleus and do their job after they lose a few key phosphate groups, the authors reasoned that perhaps Mig1p dephosphorylation lagged behind that of Msn2p.

They decided to look at the PP1 phosphatase, Glc7p, as previous work had shown that it can indirectly regulate both Msn2p and Mig1p. And indeed, when the authors lowered the expression of GLC7, Msn2p and Mig1p no longer pulsed one after the other at lower glucose concentrations. It looks like Glc7p is a key player in controlling the pulsing of these two regulators.

Even though much of this work was done with synthetic promoters with Mig1p and Msn2p binding sites, the results were not restricted to these artificial constructs. Lin and colleagues found that around 30 endogenous targets also responded to lowered glucose concentrations in a coordinated way just like their synthetic construct. Yeast regulates genes by controlling when activators and repressors pulse.

Finally, all of these studies were done using fluorescent proteins and filming single cells in real time. (Is biology cool or what?) This makes sense because subtle signs of synchronization can be lost when averaged over a large population.

Just like a synchronized swim team, yeast regulates genes by controlling when activators and repressors can work. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This also allowed the authors to investigate what happens in unstimulated cells. In other words, what happens when both regulators enter the nucleus at the same time? Or if a repressor gets in first?

The first thing they found was that even in the absence of stimulation, there were still pulses. So at seemingly random times, suddenly all of the Msn2p would swoop into the nucleus at the same time and then all leave a short time later. Or the same thing would happen with Mig1p.

If by chance the two entered the nucleus at the same time, both the synthetic reporter and an endogenous gene, GSY1, were not activated. But if Msn2p happens to get in there first, both were activated.

And if the repressor Mig1p managed to get into the nucleus at least 4-5 minutes before Msn2p, activation by Msn2p was muted. The presence of Mig1p beforehand seemed to keep Msn2p from activating coregulated genes to as high a level.

Taken together these results confirm that just like a synchronized swim team, yeast regulates genes by controlling when activators and repressors can work. First there is a pulse where the all of the molecules of a certain activator are primed to do their job and then, after a short time, they all stop doing their job. This can then be followed later by a pulse of repressors shutting it all down.

And this isn’t just in yeast either. For example, these kinds of pulses are important in neuroscience as well.

This work suggests that in dissecting regulatory pathways, researchers may need to pay more attention to the timing of pulses. Then they can see that hot followed by cold makes much more sense than both together.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: transcription regulation , Saccharomyces cerevisiae