New & Noteworthy

Sweet or Salty? It’s Hard to Tell Just By Looking

March 05, 2015

Just as you need to be careful when adding any white granulated substance to your cereal, you should also be careful assuming that orthologs from related species do the exact same thing. Image via Wikimedia Commons

If you have ever accidentally added salt to your coffee, you know that sugar and salt are very different things even though they look pretty much the same. Turns out that genes can sometimes be this way too. They can look similar at the DNA level but have very different functions.

A great example of this can be found in a new study in GENETICS by Varshney and coworkers. They found that a protein kinase in Candida albicans, Sch9, is important for ensuring that chromosomes end up in the right place when this yeast reproduces by budding.

Turns out that the same is not true for the Sch9 ortholog in our favorite yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. There is no evidence that Sch9 has anything to do with chromosome segregation there, even though the Sch9 sequences in these two yeasts look very similar.

C. albicans Sch9 is very important for keeping filamentous growth at bay under certain conditions (hypoxia and high levels of carbon dioxide). To understand better how Sch9 does this, Varshney and coworkers used chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) to figure out where the protein binds in the genome. They were surprised when they found that it bound mostly to centromeres.

Despite this binding, the authors saw no evidence that Sch9 was involved in stabilizing the kinetochore, the protein structure that forms at the spindle of sister chromatids. When a kinetochore is destabilized, a cell’s nuclear morphology changes, its centromeres decluster during the cell cycle, and the centromeric histone Cse4 delocalizes away from its centromeres. The authors saw none of these things in a C. albicans strain in which the SCH9 gene was deleted.

They did, however, find that C. albicans cells lacking Sch9 had anywhere from a 150 to a 750-fold increase in chromosome loss. They found this by using a strain of C. albicans that had an arginine marker on one copy of its chromosome 7 and a histidine marker on the other, and looking for how often cells lost one of the two markers. From this the authors concluded that like many other kinetochore associated proteins, Sch9 is involved in chromosome segregation.

As a final experiment, Varshney and coworkers used ChIP to see if the Sch9 protein bound to centromeres in S. cerevisiae. It did not. While the authors did not directly test whether Sch9 had any effect on chromosome segregation in S. cerevisiae, the presumption is that it didn’t, as it doesn’t appear to interact with centromeres and no such effect has been seen previously.

But Sch9 isn’t completely different in the two yeasts. A close look at the ChIP data showed that Sch9 bound the rDNA locus in both C. albicans and S. cerevisiae.

How did orthologous proteins in two budding yeasts end up with such different functions? One idea is that the ancestral gene to Sch9 was important for rDNA regulation and that it later gained a function in chromosome segregation in C. albicans. Another possibility is that the ancestral gene had both functions and that centromere binding was lost in S. cerevisiae. More work will need to be done to tell the difference.

Whichever explanation is correct, this study reminds us that, just like sugar and salt, even if two genes look similar they may have quite different functions. Assuming that similar appearance means identical function may lead to an experimental result that is just as unpleasant as salty coffee!

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: ortholog, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, chromosome segregation, Candida albicans