New & Noteworthy

Yeast Researchers Turn up the Heat on Essential Genes

September 09, 2015

Looking at the phenotypes—the observable characteristics—of creatures that have mutations in various genes can give important clues to scientists trying to figure out what those genes do. And the ability to systematically mutate thousands of genes in our favorite organism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has made it an awesomely powerful genetic system.

Turning up the heat on temperature-sensitive mutant strains is a great way to study essential yeast genes systematically. Image via Wikimedia Commons

But this awesome system has something of an Achilles heel. If you delete an essential gene, defined as a gene necessary for life under standard growth conditions, you end up with an experimental dead end: a dead cell. How then can you study mutant phenotypes for essential genes, which are nearly 20% of the genome?

In a new paper in G3, Kofoed and colleagues address this problem by creating conditional mutations in 600 essential genes. The mutant genes function normally at standard temperatures (25-30° C) but can be inactivated by raising the temperature. This mutant collection covers about half of S. cerevisiae essential genes and gets us much closer to being able to do mutant screens that are truly genome-wide, helping us to discover unexpected connections between genes and pathways or processes.

One popular approach to studying essential genes has been to put them under control of promoters that can be turned down when you add a particular chemical or carbon source. But it can be hard to tease apart the phenotype of down-regulating transcription of your gene of interest from the effects of the other changes that you need to make in order to regulate expression of the construct.

A solution that avoids some of these issues is to use temperature-sensitive (ts) alleles of essential genes. These mutations make the resulting proteins unstable at high temperatures. If you shift a ts strain to high temperature, the mutant protein will stop functioning; by growing the cells at an intermediate temperature, you can often produce a partially active protein that allows slow growth of the strain.

Temperature-sensitive alleles are not nearly as straightforward to create as are deletion mutations. Although newer technologies are helping, it’s still a lot of work. But Kofoed and colleagues took on this challenge. Building on their previous collection of 250 genes, they targeted genes without existing ts alleles to create a mutant collection including a total of 600 genes, about half of yeast’s essential genes.

The researchers used error-prone PCR to introduce mutations into DNA fragments encoding the genes, then transformed the mutagenized fragments into heterozygous diploid cells containing one wild-type copy of the gene and one deletion allele. The flanking sequences of the mutagenized genes targeted them to integrate in place of the deletion allele. Kofoed and colleagues could then sporulate the diploids and screen the haploid progeny for temperature sensitivity.

The genetic background of these strains is S288C, the widely used strain from which the reference genome sequence is derived. Each strain contains a “barcode”, a sequence that can be used to uniquely identify it. In addition to creating new alleles, the authors also used these methods to transfer some previously isolated ts alleles into this same background. 

Kofoed and colleagues validated and stored multiple ts alleles for each gene on their list. Although they chose one allele per gene for inclusion in the collection, the other alleles are available on request and could be very informative for researchers studying those particular genes.

As a test to see whether their collection of 600 genes was biased in any way, the researchers did Gene Ontology (GO) enrichment analysis. This compares the GO terms, representing molecular function, biological process, and subcellular localization, that are associated with the genes in a set. If the genes share related GO terms, that’s an indication that they may be involved in a common process or share the same location.

Most of the time, when scientists do GO enrichment on sets of genes they’ve come up with in an experiment, they’re hoping the genes have significantly shared terms. But in this case, the researchers were happy to find no shared terms, meaning that their collection represented a wide variety of places and roles in the cell.

The mutant strains may be studied individually in classical genetics experiments or the whole set can be tested using robotic manipulation of all the strains at once. Alternatively, the strains can be pooled and grown together in a competitive situation, like a microscopic Survivor show. When the strains are forced to compete for survival, some will prosper and others will die out. Their unique barcode identifiers allow researchers to figure out which strains were the survivors and which got voted out of the chemostat.

So this collection represents an important step in our ability to survey the phenotypes of virtually all genes in the genome. In addition to creating this resource, Kofoed and colleagues provide a summary (in Table S6) of all currently available mutant collections for essential genes. The yeast research community is now poised to turn up the heat on genome-wide mutant screens and make new discoveries about the roles of these essentially important genes.

by Maria Costanzo, Ph.D., Senior Biocuration Scientist, SGD

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: mutant collection , community resource , Saccharomyces cerevisiae