New & Noteworthy

Those Yeast Got Talent

March 11, 2015

Thriving in a yeast culture is a lot like becoming a finalist on American Idol—you need some minor advantage to hang around and then a big finish to dominate. Image by Michael Tanne via Wikimedia Commons

The winners of American Idol go through quite a selection process. They start out as one of tens of thousands of people who audition, and survive each cut until they are finally crowned.

At the first cuts, those with any sort of advantage are kept in the pool and the others dropped. As the cuts continue, contestants not only need to have had that stronger initial advantage (or a bit of luck), but they also need to have picked up some new skills from all of those off- and on-air performances.

Some of these contestants start with a lot of raw talent but then progress only a little, while others are able to hone their weaker initial talent with lots of practice. Once their numbers are winnowed down to a handful, it gets close to being anyone’s game because the remaining contestants are so talented.

A new study by Levy and coworkers paints a similar sort of picture for evolving populations of yeast. Very early on a whole lot of yeast stumble upon weak, beneficial mutations that keep them going in the population. These are the yeast that make the initial cut in the hurly-burly world of the Erlenmeyer flask.

At later times a few yeast end up with strongly beneficial mutations that allow them to start to dominate. These are the pool of yeast that are the finalists of the flask.

Of course a big difference (among many) between American Idol and the yeast in this experiment is that the pool of contestants in the flask hangs around—they are not thrown off the show. This means that some cell that didn’t do too well early on can suddenly gain a strongly beneficial mutation and begin to dominate. Until, of course, that cell is usurped by another more talented yeast, in which case that finalist will fade away unless it can adapt.

And this study isn’t just a fascinating dissection of evolutionary population dynamics either. It might also have implications for treating bacterial infections and even cancer.

Bacteria and cancer cells live in large populations with each cell trying to outcompete the others. By understanding the set of mutations that allow some cells to succeed against the others and become more harmful, researchers may be able to come up with new ways to treat these devastating diseases.

One of the trickiest parts of this experiment was figuring out how to follow lots of yeast lineages all at once in a growing culture. Levy and coworkers accomplished this by adding 500,000 unique DNA barcodes to a yeast population and using high-throughput DNA sequencing to follow the lineages in real time.

They set up two replicate cultures and followed them for around 168 generations. In both cultures the researchers saw that while most of the lineages became much less common, around 5% happened upon a beneficial mutation that allowed them to increase in number by generation 112.

In other words, around 25,000 lineages ended up with beneficial mutations that let them make the first cut in both cultures. This translates to a beneficial mutation rate of around 1 X 10-6 per cell per generation and means that around 0.04% of the yeast genome (around 5000 base pairs) can change in a way that confers a growth advantage.

But of course not all mutations are the same. Weakly beneficial mutations are very common, which means both cultures have plenty of these early on. This is why the replicate cultures behave so similarly up to around generation 80.

Eventually, though, a few yeast stumble upon stronger, more beneficial mutations. Since these are rarer and harder to get, each replicate culture gets them at different generations. This is why the cultures begin to diverge as the 100 or so of the strongest beneficial mutations begin to dominate.

The experiment did not go on for long enough to see many double mutations. In other words, it was very rare in this experiment to see a yeast lineage succeed because it had developed additive beneficial mutations. This is because there simply wasn’t enough time for a yeast cell to get a beneficial mutation and establish itself and then have one of its lineage gain and establish a second beneficial mutation. There was no Jennifer Hudson who came in 7th but then went on to win a Grammy and an Oscar.

When a cancerous tumor is developing, however, there is plenty of time for multiple “beneficial” mutations to be established. These mutations are only beneficial for the tumor; they are devastating for the person with cancer. This is why it is so critically important to understand not only which mutations are implicated in cancer, but also the dynamics of how they accumulate in the cancer cell population during progression of the disease. Talented yeast in the hands of talented researchers are helping us figure this out.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: evolution , Saccharomyces cerevisiae , cancer