Could Yeast Be The New Hero Of Biomedical Research?

Col Ford and Natasha de Vere. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Yeast might have more in common with humans than you think. Despite being separated by billions of years of evolution, researchers were "surprised" to find that we share hundreds of genes. The study, published in Science, could have important implications for biomedical research.

Researchers removed 450 genes critical for yeast’s survival and replaced them with human versions of the same gene. They waited to see if the organisms would die but, unexpectedly, almost half of the time new strains which resulted were capable of surviving and reproducing. While researchers have been able to swap single genes between yeast and humans before, this is the first time that hundreds of genes could be swapped on such a large scale. Researchers found that certain groups were stable over evolutionary time and suggest that there might be another 1000 "swappable" genes.

“It's a beautiful demonstration of the common heritage of all living things – to be able to take DNA from a human and replace the matching DNA in a yeast cell and have it successfully support the life of the cell," said professor Edward Marcotte, from the University of Texas, Austin, in a statement.

How could researchers predict whether two genes could be successfully changed? The answer, according to team member Jon Laurent, could lie in determining the modules of which the genes are a part. Modules are groups of genes in the same pathway that have the same useful function. Researchers found that genes in the same module were more likely to be swappable. They were surprised it was these modules and not the similarity between genetic sequences that determined the success of the swaps.  

Researchers suggest that yeast could play a particularly important role in biomedical research as scientists would be able to test different genetic mutations to gain a better understanding of human disease. By inserting different human genetic mutations into yeast, researchers could test different treatments.  

"We could find out if one of the standard treatments would work on your particular version of the gene or if maybe another drug would be even better," says professor Claus Wilke, from the University of Texas, who co-authored the paper, in a statement.

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