July 27, 2017
Some products have lots and lots of uses. Sometimes they are designed that way like the hypothetical Shimmer, a floor wax and dessert topping from Saturday Night Live. And sometimes they can be used in more situations than they were originally designed for like Windex in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or the most versatile thing out there in real life, duct tape. (Click here and here for some fun duct tape uses).
Wait, did I say duct tape was the most versatile thing out there? Maybe I spoke too soon.
Our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae is in contention with duct tape for that title. Of course it is used to make bread, beer and wine, but it has lots of other uses too. Just a very few include using it to: make antimalarial drugs, understand how our cells and a surprising variety of human diseases work, understand how evolution can happen, understand how cancer forms and progresses, and make ambergris (whale puke). In the near future, it may even help deal with climate change by making biofuels out of agricultural waste, and pain management by making opioids.
And now a new study by Ostrov and coworkers adds another use—the simple and inexpensive detection of fungal pathogens. This is a big deal because if it works the way the authors think it will, this new use could one day save the lives of a significant fraction of the two million or so people who die from fungal pathogens each year.
In a nut shell, these authors have engineered S. cerevisiae to be attracted to different kinds of fungus by monkeying with its pheromone detection system.
S. cerevisiae comes in two mating types, a and α. The a-type cells make the secreted mating pheromone “a-factor” and STE2, a receptor that responds to “α-factor.” And α-type cells make the secreted mating pheromone “α-factor” and a receptor, STE3, that responds to the “a-factor.” So, thea-type cell makes something that makes it attractive to α-type cells and vice versa.
The end result of the factor/receptor interaction is that a number of genes are regulated so that the two haploid cells, a-type and α-type, can merge to become an a/α diploid. Fertilization yeast-style.
What these authors have done is to switch out the STE2 receptor from S. cerevisiae with the receptors from other fungal species in a-type cells so that the newly engineered cell responds to the presence of the new fungal species’ pheromone. For example, they replaced S. cerevisiae STE2 with the STE2 from Candida albicans so that the newly engineered cell now responds to pheromones from C. albicans.
Now of course that doesn’t make much of a sensor! No, they also need a readout to know that the engineered yeast has detected the presence of C. albicans.
They started out using a fluorescent reporter to see whether their engineered system responded to C. albicans mating pheromone. The cells fluoresced when the C. albicans mating pheromone was around at low levels but not with any of nine other fungal mating pheromones. So the system is definitely working—it can specifically identify C. albicans.
But to make it more useful in the developing countries where fungal pathogens are the biggest problem, they wanted to create a system with a more visible readout. For this they turned a bright red pigment called lycopene.
They needed to add three genes from Erwinia herbicola to get yeast to make lycopene: crtE, crtB, and crtI. They placed the first two under constitutive promoters (pADH1 for crtE and pTEF1 for crtB) and the third gene, crtI, under the control of the pheromone-inducible promoter from FUS1. So, lycopene is not made unless the appropriate pheromone is around to turn on the crtI gene.
This new system worked as well as the fluorescent one.
For the next step, they replaced the S. cerevisiae STE2 with STE2 genes from nine other fungal species involved in human disease and/or food or agricultural spoilage and showed that their system worked for all of them. These new pathogens included: Candida glabrata, Histoplasma capsulatum, Lodderomyces elongisporus, Botrytis cinerea, Fusarium graminearum, Magnaporthe oryzae, Zygosaccharomyces bailii, and Zygosaccharomyces rouxii.
And they didn’t stick to just the well-characterized fungal species either. They were also able to create a system that worked for Paracoccidioides brasiliensis, a less-well studied fungus that causes paracoccidioidomycosis (PCM), a disease endemic to Latin America.
It may be that just understanding a fungal species’ mating system is enough to create this sort of biosensor. More species will have to be tested to see just how universal the simple swapping out of a single gene will be.
In their final step, Ostrov and coworkers tested whether they could create a simple, inexpensive dipstick test by spotting their engineered strains onto filter paper. For the initial test, they focused on two of their engineered strains: the one that detects the presence of C. albicans and the one that detects the presence of P. brasiliensis. They found that the system worked by simply putting the yeast-spotted filter paper into soil, urine, serum, and blood that had been supplemented with synthetic pheromone.
The yeast with C. albicans STE2 turned red with C. albicans pheromone, but not with P. brasiliensis pheromone and vice versa. And to increase its utility further, the authors found that the filter paper stayed functional even after being stored for 38 weeks at room temperature.
The impact of fungal pathogens on human health is understudied and underappreciated despite the toll they take on people’s lives, especially in the developing world. For example, as one recent review points out, “…at least as many, if not more, people die from the top 10 invasive fungal diseases than from tuberculosis or malaria.”
The basic research done on S. cerevisiae has allowed these scientists to devise an ingenious way to identify fungal pathogens. That magical combination of basic research and the most versatile eukaryote out there, S. cerevisiae, is poised to help humanity yet again. #APOYG
by Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics
Categories: Research Spotlight