New & Noteworthy

Exploding Yeast to Protect the Wild

January 22, 2018

In the first Kingsman movie, Samuel L. Jackson plants little bombs into the necks of people who will follow him to his “ark”. If they disobey him, Jackson can simply blow up their heads.

In an amazing scene from the movie, our heroes get a hold of the “detonator” and blow up the heads of every one of Jackson’s followers. As you can see below, the director uses cool colors to make it more fabulous than gruesome:

In a new study out in Nature Communications, Maselko and coworkers explode misbehaving yeast instead of people’s heads. (Click here for an incredibly cool video of it happening…so cool!)

These researchers have created a strain of yeast that can only form diploids within the same strain. If instead it mates and forms a diploid with a yeast outside of its strain, the resulting diploids explode.

These authors aren’t being strainist—they are creating a proof of principle organism that could potentially solve the problem of gene transfer from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to wild organisms.

Assuming a similar idea works in plants, then the idea is that a GMO like an herbicide-resistant GM plant could not pass its herbicide-resistance to its wild cousin. The resulting plants would explode (or perhaps die in a bit less spectacular fashion). The herbicide-resistant gene would not escape into the wild population because none of the resulting plants could survive.

And that isn’t this approach’s only possible uses. It might be used to kill off disease carrying mosquitoes or controlling invasive species. Watch out sea lamprey!

The basic idea is that the engineered species makes a “poison” that it is immune to. If it mates with a wild species, it passes that poison on to the resulting “children.” These progeny are not immune and so die.

The poison in this case is a CRISPR/Cas9-inspired transcription activator. This activator turns a gene up so much that it kills the yeast. But the catch is that the activator’s binding site is only found in the wild type genome and not the engineered genome.

So the engineered strain carries around this deadly poison that does not affect it. But when this yeast mates with a strain that has the binding site, the resulting diploid yeast has the activator binding site, meaning that the silent killer can now bind and kill the diploid.

For their proof of principle experiments, Maselko and coworkers used a well-tested and available CRISPR/Cas9 transcriptional activator that involves dCas9-VP64 and a single guide RNA aptamer binding MS2-VP64. Previous work has shown that this is a very powerful activator.

Next they turned to the Saccharomyces Genome Database (SGD) to find genes that have been shown to be lethal when overexpressed. They created at least one guide RNA for each of the 8 genes and found that one of the guide RNAs that targeted the ACT1 promoter was lethal. The yeast made actin until it exploded (think the man in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life who eats so much he explodes).

Now they were ready to create their engineered strain. They used CRISPR/Cas9 to engineer a single nucleotide change such that their activator could no longer bind near the ACT1 gene. This strain survived when the activator was introduced.

But when they mated this strain with a wild type strain, they got almost no survivors. The resulting diploids grew fat on overproduced actin and exploded!

Note that there were a few survivors…as Jeff Goldblum famously said in Jurassic Park, “Life will find a way.” The survivors appeared at a frequency of 4.83 × 10−3 with the most common reason found being a mutation in the activator binding site.

This survival rate is one area of obvious concern. Given the genetic variability of wild populations, there may be a few individuals that happen to have a mutation that is resistant to the activator. These immune individuals would then go on to found a new population.


Like the engineered yeast in this strain, Hawat can survive only because he has both the poison and the antidote. (Dunepedia)

The authors suggest that targeting a species that has gone through a recent bottleneck to decrease genetic variability might help. Another possibility might be to target multiple genes making the likelihood of an individual having and/or developing multiple mutations exceedingly unlikely. (This is the strategy used to target HIV, a virus with a high mutation rate.)

These authors have created an elegant system reminiscent of the one created by Baron Harkonnen in the novel Dune. In the book, a character named Thufir Hawat is given a slow acting poison by the Baron. Hawat can be controlled because he needs the antidote each day to survive. Once the antidote is removed, he dies.

Here the researchers have given the poison and engineered the antidote into their new strain. When this strain mates with a strain lacking the antidote, like a wild strain, most of the progeny die. Like Hawat, the yeast die for the good of mankind. And hopefully those pesky weeds can be prevented from picking up transgenes too.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: synthetic biology , horizontal gene transfer , CRISPR