New & Noteworthy

If Yeast Can’t Stand the Heat, Our World May Be in Trouble

October 23, 2014

In case there were still any doubters, the world is definitely heating up. April to September 2014 were the warmest these months have ever been since we started keeping records in 1880. And about 35,000 walruses were forced ashore this summer in Alaska because there wasn’t enough room left for them on the sea ice where they normally hang out. Unfortunately, the trend looks to be more record breaking heat for as long as we can see in the future.

Like the X-men, mutated yeast might one day be the superheroes that save us from the worst effects of global warming. Image by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

This is bad news for us, and even worse news for nature.  But all is not lost! Our hero yeast may be able to swoop in and make us biofuels to replace gasoline.  This won’t stop global warming, but it might at the very least slow it down.

But yeast in its current form probably couldn’t make enough biofuels to make a difference without using too much precious food in the process. Like the X-men, it will need a helpful mutation or two to increase its efficiency to the point where it can make a real dent in slowing down the relentless rise in global temperatures. And ironically, one new trait yeast needs to pull this off is to be able to survive better in the heat.

To efficiently turn the parts of the plants we can’t use (mostly anything to do with cellulose) into biofuels, we need for yeast to grow in cultures where enzymes are chopping cellulose into bite sized pieces at the same time.  These enzymes work best at temperatures that are a real struggle for wild type yeast.

In a new study in Science, Caspeta and coworkers isolated mutants better able to tolerate high temperatures by simply growing Saccharomyces cerevisiae at around 39.5° C for over 300 generations.  They did this in triplicate and ended up with strains that grew on average about 1.9 times faster than wild type yeast at these temperatures.

The next step was to use genome sequencing and whole-genome transcription profiling to figure out why these mutant strains were heat tolerant. This is where things got really interesting.

They found many genes that were affected, but identified ERG3 as the most important player. All of the thermotolerant strains that they selected contained a nonsense mutation in ERG3. And in fact, when they introduced an erg3 nonsense mutation into wild type yeast, they found that this engineered strain grew 86% as well as the original mutant strain at high temperatures. In other words, most of the heat tolerance of these strains came from mutations in the ERG3 gene.

This makes sense, as membrane fluidity is a key factor in dealing with higher temperatures, and ERG3 codes for a C-5 sterol desaturase important for membrane composition.  When Caspeta and coworkers looked at the membranes of the mutant strains, they found a buildup of the “bended” sterol fecosterol.  Since “bended” sterols have been shown to protect the membranes of plants and Archaea from temperature swings, this could be the reason that the mutant strains dealt with the heat so well.

So as we might predict, changing the composition of the cell membrane affects how the yeast respond to temperature. What we couldn’t predict is that in order to get to this point via artificial selection, the yeast had to have a second mutation in either the ATP2 or the ATP3 genes that actually make yeast less able to grow at higher temperatures.

Because ATP2 and ATP3 are needed for yeast to grow on nonfermentable carbon sources, the authors hypothesized that perhaps thermotolerance could not evolve while oxidative respiration worked at full speed. Consistent with this, Caspeta and coworkers found that their evolved thermotolerant strains were more susceptible to oxidative stress and could not grow on nonfermentable carbon sources. This was not true of the strain they engineered to only have the mutation in the ERG3 gene—it grew well at 40° C and could use nonfermentable carbon sources.

So not only have these authors found a mutant yeast with the superpower of growing at higher temperatures, but they also showed that sometimes engineering works better than natural selection at creating the mutant they want. Evolving sometimes requires passing through an intermediate that makes the final product less useful than it could have been. In this case it worked best to use a combination of artificial selection and engineering to build a better mutant.   

Even this super engineered yeast mutant won’t stop global warming in its tracks, but it might help us to slow it down enough so that natural systems have a chance to adapt. A superhero indeed… 

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: evolution, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, biofuel, thermotolerance

Next