New & Noteworthy

Too Much of a Good Thing

November 09, 2016

Just like too much salt can ruin a cookie, so too can too many copies of a gene ruin a cell.Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Like a ruined cookie with too much salt, a cell can go haywire when it has too many copies of certain genes. And of course, cells can deal perfectly well with too many copies of other genes. Just like adding too many chocolate chips to your cookies might make an even better cookie!

Finding out which genes are like salt and which ones are like chocolate chips is of more than just general biological interest. It might help us to explain why cancer happens and to possibly find better treatments.

As you probably know, cancer cells are pretty messed up genetically. Their DNA is littered with mutations, rearrangements and somatic copy number amplifications (SCNAs).

A big reason for this genetic jumble is early DNA changes that increase the rate of mutations in a cell. This “mutator” trait makes a cell more likely to stumble on the mutations it needs to grow out of control or refuse to die.

In their new study in GENETICS, Ang and coworkers set out to find genes that can cause a mutator phenotype when they are part of a SCNA. In other words, which genes lead to an increased mutation rate when expressed at a higher level.

This is important because there are so many SCNAs in a typical cancer cell that it can be hard to figure out which ones matter and which ones don’t (or to put it into cancer parlance, to tell the drivers from the passengers). And despite all of the CRISPR hoopla and other mammalian resources, it would still be a very long process to find “dosage mutator” genes in cell culture and/or living animals.

Which is why Ang and coworkers used our favorite workhorse, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to find genes that may cause an increased mutation rate when overexpressed.

The assay is conceptually simple. Yeast that have a functioning CAN1 gene do not survive in the presence of the drug canavanine. So these researchers looked for cells that did better in the presence canavanine when overexpressing a single gene. Presumably, they are surviving because that extra gene resulted in the CAN1 gene being mutated more often because of an increased mutation rate.

They found 37 genes that fit the bill, 18 of which that were involved in biological pathways known to affect genome stability. Combining this with previous studies that looked at gene deletions, this brings the grand total of suspected yeast mutator genes to 210.

Most of these 210 were identified because of mutations that made them stop working which can make figuring out why they cause the mutator phenotype relatively simple. For example, if a mutation kills a gene responsible for fixing DNA mistakes, then you are going to get more DNA mistakes in that cell. It is a little trickier to understand how extra copies of a gene might cause an increased mutation rate.

Ang and coworkers focused on trying to figure out the mechanism behind their top 5 dosage mutator genes: PIF1, MPH1, UBP12, RRM3, and DNA2. Since 4/5 of these code for helicases, they first checked to see if just being a helicase is enough to be a dosage mutator gene. It isn’t.

They retested 48 DNA helicases in their assay and found that none of them caused an increased mutation rate when mutated. There is more to a dosage mutator than being a helicase!

In the next set of experiments, they wanted to determine if the five strains, each overexpressing one of these five genes, had a higher mutation rate by the same mechanism. They tested this by determining the sensitivity of these 5 strains to 3 different DNA damaging agents. The idea is that if they share the same mechanism, they should have the same sensitivity profiles to each of these agents. They did not.

For example, overexpressing MPH1 resulted in a higher sensitivity to all three agents while overexpressing UBP12 only increased sensitivity to two of them. So each strain probably has an increased mutation rate for a different reason.

They next wanted to see if the increased mutation rate was due to a loss or gain of function. They did this by comparing the profiles of strains either deleted for or overexpressing the dosage mutator genes. The idea is that if overexpression leads to a loss of function, then deleting and overexpressing the genes should have the same profile. The three they could test like this did not.

The authors conclude from this that the increased mutation rate for MPH1, UBP12, and RRM3 is most likely due to the gain of an inappropriate function as opposed to a loss of function. In a final set of experiments, Ang and coworkers focused on what that new function might be in their strongest mutant, MPH1.


Finding out which genes are like salt and which are like chocolate chips can help us to explain why cancer happens and to possibly find better treatments. Image from flickr.

First they showed that of the three activities associated with Mph1p, only DNA binding and not its ATPase or helicase activities were important for it causing an increased mutation rate when overexpressed. From this they reasoned that perhaps Mph1p was displacing some other important DNA binding protein and that it was this displacement that was causing the increased mutation rate.

Through a set of experiments we don’t have time to go into here, they provided evidence that Mph1p was outcompeting the flap endonuclease Rad27p for DNA binding. This makes some sense as previous work had shown that deleting RAD27 causes mutation rates to go way up. So too much Mph1p keeps Rad27p from getting to where it needs to be with the end result being an increased mutation rate.

All this MPH1 work may have important implications in some human cancers. Nonsense or missense mutations in FANCM, the human homolog of MPH1, are known to make people more likely to get cancer. And there are examples of cancers where FANCM is overexpressed. Perhaps that overexpression results in an increased mutation rate in these cancers.

Yet again yeast is giving researchers new targets for, and new ways to think about, human disease. Thanks, yeast, for finding all of these mutator genes for us to investigate further! #APOYG!

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

Categories: Research Spotlight Yeast and Human Disease

Tags: cancer , overexpression , mutator , MPH1 , genome-wide , forward mutation