New & Noteworthy

The Dark Yeast Rises

April 04, 2017

Sometimes in life you need to take risks to survive and prosper. Maybe you need to take a leap of faith like Bruce Wayne does to escape that pit in The Dark Knight Rises. Or you need to try a risky business strategy to put your company out in front.

While these are critical things to do at the time, chronic risk-taking is not usually a good idea. Even Bruce Wayne retires to Florence at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, his risky life choices done now that he has saved his beloved Gotham City. He can now settle down with Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and live happily (and safely) ever after.

Something similar can happen in the budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In the right environment, certain yeasts can build up mutations like mad, hoping to hit on one that lets them make it out of that pit.

But then, over time, yeasts with the successful mutation lose that frenetic mutation rate—they take fewer risks with their DNA. One way they can do this is by ending up with a mutation that suppresses the high mutation rate. This is like Bruce Wayne retiring to a nice villa on the Arno.

Another way they can reestablish their old mutation rate is to mate with a nonmutator, a yeast strain that does not risk its DNA with a high mutation rate. Now, the next generations have the beneficial mutation and a lowered mutation rate as well. It is as if Bruce Wayne settled down with an accountant instead of Catwoman and had risk-averse children to carry on the Wayne name.

Bui and coworkers investigate this phenomenon in yeast in a new study out in GENETICS. They show that natural isolates exist that can sporulate into one of these mutator strains. And that at least one strain predicted to have a high mutation rate has a number of suppressor mutations that tamp down that higher rate.

Previous work had shown that a high mutation rate can happen with mutations in two genes in the mismatch repair (MMR) pathway, MLH1 and PMS1. This was discovered when researchers saw that some of the haploid strains from a mating of two laboratory strains, S288C and SK1, showed this mutator phenotype. A closer look revealed that S288C has a mutation in MLH1, and SK1 has a mutation in PMS1.

Bui and coworkers show that these mutator haploid strains outcompete other strains in high salt media. The strain hits upon mutations that allowed for better survival in high salt faster than its slower mutating brethren. But this advantage does not last.

After 120 generations these mutator strains start to lag behind strains with more typical mutation rates. Their DNA becomes as beat up as Bruce Wayne’s body by the third movie.

The researchers next looked at the MLH1 and PMS1 genes of 1,010 natural isolates of S. cerevisiae to see if there were any that might be able to sporulate into a mutator strain. Or that were already mutator strains themselves.

Since the mutations that lead to the mutator phenotype are recessive, strains that are heterozygotes for mutations in both genes should be able to form haploid spores with the higher mutation rate. They found 18 that fit the bill.

They also found one strain, YJM523, that was homozygous for both mutations and so would be predicted to have a high mutation rate. They further investigated this strain.


The first thing they did was to test the YJM523 mutant genes in an S288C background. They found that these two mutant genes did indeed give S288C a mutator phenotype. In fact, it had a higher mutation rate than the original genes from S288C and SK1 did, suggesting there were other mutations in one or both YJM523 genes that further increased the mutation rate.

These researchers next wanted to determine if YJM523 had a higher mutation rate or not, but needed to first develop a new assay that could be used in natural isolates. They came up with a reporter system that is not dependent on the typical markers used in yeast experiments, but instead relies on two antibiotic markers.

The reporter uses the NatMX antibiotic resistance marker for selection and the KanMX marker to identify revertant mutants. By scoring the number of colonies resistant to both antibiotics, they could determine the mutation rate.

When the researchers did this experiment, they found that YJM523 did not have a particularly high mutation rate. Sporulation experiments showed that this was most likely due to multiple suppressor mutations.

So out in the wild, the potential for mutator strains exists. And a close look at the genome of YJM523 showed that if it did have a mutator phenotype, it was for a short time. This yeast at least quickly lost its high mutation rate (assuming it ever had one).

This study helps to explain how yeast can obtain that mutator phenotype that researchers have seen before. And how yeast can escape that mutation pit to get back to the safety of a reasonable DNA repair pathway. To quote the prisoners in The Dark Knight, “Deshi Basara”, or ‘rise up’ yeast!

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: experimental evolution , genetic incompatibility , DNA mismatch repair , mutator phenotype , adaptation , natural yeast isolates

Studying the Ballistics of Yeast Mutagenesis

February 06, 2014

Like different fireworks bursting across the sky in distinct patterns, different mutator strains pepper genomes with distinct patterns of mutations. Photo by Marek Skrzypek

Fireworks shells all pretty much look the same from the outside. They definitely all make the same boom when they’re launched. But when they burst in the air, each different kind creates a different shimmering pattern.

It turns out that the same is true for yeast strains carrying mutator alleles.
These are mutant alleles of genes that normally stop mutations from happening. When these genes are disabled, a strain eventually accumulates lots of extra mutations.

Mutator strains tend to look similar from the outside; many are deficient in DNA replication and repair pathways. But, in a new paper in GENETICS, Stirling and coworkers show that like different firework shells, each strain ends up with a distinct pattern of secondary mutations bursting across their respective genomes. Not only is this fascinating information about how yeast maintains its genomic integrity, but it may also provide valuable insights into how cancers progress.

Mutator genes have been found previously using the knockout collection of mutations in nonessential genes. But, not surprisingly, many genes required for genome maintenance are essential to life. So the first step by Stirling and coworkers was to expand the list of mutator genes by screening conditional mutant alleles of essential genes.

Using an assay for mutation frequency that counts canavanine resistance mutations arising in the CAN1 gene, they came up with 47 alleles in 38 essential genes that caused a mutator phenotype.  But this standard assay for mutator phenotype has its limitations: the only mutations that can be detected are those that fall in or near the CAN1 gene, and inactivate it. So that they could look at the full spectrum of mutations arising in the mutator strains, Stirling and coworkers decided to use whole genome sequencing instead to detect them.

The researchers chose 11 mutator alleles of genes representative of different processes such as homologous recombination, oxidative stress tolerance, splicing, transcription, mitochondrial function, telomere capping, and several aspects of DNA replication. They grew these strains for 200 generations and then did whole-genome sequencing of 4 to 6 independent progeny of each to find all the resulting mutations.

Under these conditions, wild-type yeast accumulated 2-4 mutations per genome. In contrast, the mutator strains ended up with 2- to 10-fold more mutations. And most every type was represented: single-nucleotide variants, structural variants (showing altered chromosome structure), copy-number variants (amplification of certain regions or entire chromosomes), and insertions or deletions.

However, while all of the mutator strains had accumulated mutations, the different types of mutation were in different proportions. For example, a mutant in the Replication Factor C subunit gene, rfc2-1, tended to give rise to transition mutations (changing a pyrimidine to a pyrimidine, or a purine to a purine).  The same was true for the telomere-capping protein mutant, stn1-13

But the pol1-ts DNA polymerase mutant instead showed more transversions (changing a purine to a pyrimidine or vice versa). And a deletion of the nonessential RAD52 gene, encoding a recombinase, tended to cause mutations in the transcribed strand of genes, suggesting that transcription-associated recombination was compromised in those cells and this affected DNA repair. 

Positions of the accumulated mutations also differed between strains. The stn1-13 and pol1-ts mutants preferentially accumulated mutations in subtelomeric regions. Some of the alleles gave rise to clusters of mutations, while others did not. And, as has been seen in cancer cells, many of the mutator strains had mutations in regions of the genome that replicate late in DNA replication.

Even though this work generated a huge amount of data (much more than we can discuss here), one conclusion reached by the authors is that even more mutant progeny of mutator strains, arising under a variety of different conditions, need to be analyzed using whole-genome sequencing to give a truly comprehensive picture of the mutational spectrum associated with each allele.

But another conclusion is clear: that different mutator alleles do result in characteristic patterns of mutations. Given that some of these same genes have been found to be mutated in cancer cells, this work may help other scientists predict what mutations a cancer will develop. And that would really give us a bang for our research buck!

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: yeast model for human disease , mutator phenotype , Saccharomyces cerevisiae