New & Noteworthy

That Sweet Spot of Mistranslation

August 3, 2017

Anyone at a party knows that a little alcohol can make you charming, but a lot can doom any relationship from blossoming (just listen to Drunk Uncle!). In fact, too much can destroy a party! You need to have enough alcohol to curb social inhibitions, but not so much you overwhelm them.

Drunk man

Just as drinking too much alcohol can be toxic to people, too much mistranslation can be toxic to a cell. from pbs.twimg

According to a new study out in GENETICS by Berg and coworkers, something similar sometimes seems to be true when the genetic code evolves. A variety of beasts, including the yeast Candida albicans, have slightly different genetic codes—one or a few codons code for a different amino acid than usual. This is often the result of a mutated tRNA, the molecule that carries the right amino acid to the right codon.

These authors found that mutating only the anticodon, the part of the tRNA that recognizes the codon, is not a great way to head down the path to a new genetic code. That mutated tRNA leads to too many of one amino acid being replaced with another. Like the boorish drunk who kills the party because he has had too much to drink, the cell is overwhelmed with too many of the wrong amino acids scattered across its proteins and dies.

What Berg and coworkers found was that having fewer of these tRNAs with a mutated anticodon allowed for a tolerable level of amino acid substitutions. This means that this tRNA can hang around until it is helpful, like when it can suppress a new mutation of a key amino acid in a key protein. 

The authors dubbed these low level mutated tRNAs as “phenotypically ambivalent intermediate tRNAs”—tRNAs that are in the process of changing the genetic code for at least one codon. It may be that the variants of the genetic code found in nature arose this way.

They started out with a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae with a mutation that inserted a proline in the wrong place of the TTI2 protein.  This strain does extremely poorly in the presence of 5% ethanol.

The authors then tried to create and/or isolate suppressor mutations in a serine tRNA that could allow the strain to grow in the presence of 5% alcohol. The idea is that this tRNA would now carry a serine to that troublesome proline codon.

They started off by changing the anticodon of a serine tRNA to UGG. Now, the cell would put a serine in at CCA proline codons.

When they transformed a plasmid carrying this tRNA into their yeast strain, they got very few colonies. This obnoxious tRNA overwhelmed the cell by changing too many prolines to serines. It ruined the party!

 They next set out to find a way to bring this bad boy under control. They mutated the serine tRNA with the proline anticodon using UV mutagenesis and found four mutants that allowed this yeast strain to grow in 5% ethanol.

Each mutant tRNA had a single mutation: G9A, A20bG, C40T, and G26A. Berg and coworkers set out to figure out why the cells now tolerated the mistranslation they couldn’t handle before.

What they found was that at least for two of them, G9A and G26A, the cells dealt better with the mutated serine tRNA because there was less of them around. The toxic drunk had become the tipsy charmer!

I can teach you lots of things about biology but you’ll need to learn about drinking alcohol on your own. Beer mug from Max Pixel (

Well, maybe not quite charming, but at least something that could be dealt with. Both mutated tRNAs affected cell growth in the absence of ethanol, with the G26A version having the more severe effect—a reduction in growth by 70%.

Most likely there was less of the G26A variant because it was a victim of the rapid tRNA decay (RTD) pathway. The G26A variant affected the growth rate much less in the absence of alcohol in a strain deleted for MET22, a key gene in the RTD pathway.

By looking at the crystal structure of a serine tRNA in complex with its aminoacyl tRNA synthetase from Thermus thermophilus, Berg and coworkers predicted that the G9A mutation should result in a poorly folded tRNA. They found this was indeed the case when they compared the melting curves of the G9A mutant and the tRNA lacking the G9A mutation.

So what we have are some tolerable, but by no means benign mutations. For example, the G26A is quickly selected against in the absence of ethanol.

This makes it hard to imagine how these sorts of mutations might arise and one day permanently alter a genetic code. The key to understanding how this might happen is a set of experiments Berg and coworkers did that showed that both G26A and G9A have little or no effect on cell growth in the absence of a mutated anticodon. In other words, tRNAs can exist in a poised state, ready to easily adapt with a single change to the anticodon if need be.

And it turns out that poised tRNAs may exist in the real world. For example, human tRNAs have a lot of variation. Perhaps these are around to one day save a cell with a mutation that would normally be deadly.

As this work (and real life) shows, too much of a good thing can be bad. This is true of alcohol (remember high school or college?) and true of some mutant tRNAs. Yeast can teach us about the tRNAs, the rest we need to learn on our own. #APOYG

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

Now Yeast Even Finds Fungal Pathogens!

July 27, 2017

Some products have lots and lots of uses. Sometimes they are designed that way like the hypothetical Shimmer, a floor wax and dessert topping from Saturday Night Live. And sometimes they can be used in more situations than they were originally designed for like Windex in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or the most versatile thing out there in real life, duct tape. (Click here and here for some fun duct tape uses).

Positive Pregnancy test results

Yeast might one day be used to identify fungal pathogens with an assay as easy to use as a pregnancy test. from Wikimedia Commons

Wait, did I say duct tape was the most versatile thing out there? Maybe I spoke too soon.

Our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae is in contention with duct tape for that title. Of course it is used to make bread, beer and wine, but it has lots of other uses too. Just a very few include using it to: make antimalarial drugs, understand how our cells and a surprising variety of human diseases work, understand how evolution can happen, understand how cancer forms and progresses, and make ambergris (whale puke). In the near future, it may even help deal with climate change by making biofuels out of agricultural waste, and pain management by making opioids.

And now a new study by Ostrov and coworkers adds another use—the simple and inexpensive detection of fungal pathogens. This is a big deal because if it works the way the authors think it will, this new use could one day save the lives of a significant fraction of the two million or so people who die from fungal pathogens each year.

In a nut shell, these authors have engineered S. cerevisiae to be attracted to different kinds of fungus by monkeying with its pheromone detection system.

S. cerevisiae comes in two mating types, a and α. The a-type cells make the secreted mating pheromone “a-factor” and STE2, a receptor that responds to “α-factor.” And α-type cells make the secreted mating pheromone “α-factor” and a receptor, STE3, that responds to the “a-factor.” So, thea-type cell makes something that makes it attractive to α-type cells and vice versa.

The end result of the factor/receptor interaction is that a number of genes are regulated so that the two haploid cells, a-type and α-type, can merge to become an a/α diploid. Fertilization yeast-style.

What these authors have done is to switch out the STE2 receptor from S. cerevisiae with the receptors from other fungal species in a-type cells so that the newly engineered cell responds to the presence of the new fungal species’ pheromone. For example, they replaced S. cerevisiae STE2 with the STE2 from Candida albicans so that the newly engineered cell now responds to pheromones from C. albicans.

Now of course that doesn’t make much of a sensor! No, they also need a readout to know that the engineered yeast has detected the presence of C. albicans.

They started out using a fluorescent reporter to see whether their engineered system responded to C. albicans mating pheromone. The cells fluoresced when the C. albicans mating pheromone was around at low levels but not with any of nine other fungal mating pheromones. So the system is definitely working—it can specifically identify C. albicans.

But to make it more useful in the developing countries where fungal pathogens are the biggest problem, they wanted to create a system with a more visible readout. For this they turned a bright red pigment called lycopene.    

They needed to add three genes from Erwinia herbicola to get yeast to make lycopene: crtE, crtB, and crtI. They placed the first two under constitutive promoters (pADH1 for crtE and pTEF1 for crtB) and the third gene, crtI, under the control of the pheromone-inducible promoter from FUS1. So, lycopene is not made unless the appropriate pheromone is around to turn on the crtI gene.

This new system worked as well as the fluorescent one.

For the next step, they replaced the S. cerevisiae STE2 with STE2 genes from nine other fungal species involved in human disease and/or food or agricultural spoilage and showed that their system worked for all of them. These new pathogens included: Candida glabrata, Histoplasma capsulatum, Lodderomyces elongisporus, Botrytis cinerea, Fusarium graminearum, Magnaporthe oryzae, Zygosaccharomyces bailii, and Zygosaccharomyces rouxii.

And they didn’t stick to just the well-characterized fungal species either. They were also able to create a system that worked for Paracoccidioides brasiliensis, a less-well studied fungus that causes paracoccidioidomycosis (PCM), a disease endemic to Latin America.

It may be that just understanding a fungal species’ mating system is enough to create this sort of biosensor. More species will have to be tested to see just how universal the simple swapping out of a single gene will be.

hammock made of duct tape

Yeast is giving duct tape a run for its money in terms of versatility (although it can’t yet be used to make a hammock like this). From Ally’s Place (

In their final step, Ostrov and coworkers tested whether they could create a simple, inexpensive dipstick test by spotting their engineered strains onto filter paper. For the initial test, they focused on two of their engineered strains: the one that detects the presence of C. albicans and the one that detects the presence of P. brasiliensis. They found that the system worked by simply putting the yeast-spotted filter paper into soil, urine, serum, and blood that had been supplemented with synthetic pheromone.

The yeast with C. albicans STE2 turned red with C. albicans pheromone, but not with P. brasiliensis pheromone and vice versa. And to increase its utility further, the authors found that the filter paper stayed functional even after being stored for 38 weeks at room temperature.

The impact of fungal pathogens on human health is understudied and underappreciated despite the toll they take on people’s lives, especially in the developing world. For example, as one recent review points out, “…at least as many, if not more, people die from the top 10 invasive fungal diseases than from tuberculosis or malaria.”

The basic research done on S. cerevisiae has allowed these scientists to devise an ingenious way to identify fungal pathogens. That magical combination of basic research and the most versatile eukaryote out there, S. cerevisiae, is poised to help humanity yet again.  #APOYG

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

Call for Yeast Genetics Meeting 2018 Award Nominations!

July 25, 2017

The Yeast Genetics Meeting will be held August 22-26, 2018 at Stanford University.

You are invited to submit nominations to the meeting organizers for the awards and presentations that have become a cornerstone of the meeting.

  • The Lifetime Achievement Award is given for lifetime contributions in the field of yeast genetics and outstanding community service.
  • The Ira Herskowitz Award is given for outstanding contributions in the field of yeast research in the last 20 years. This award is usually given to scientists under 50.
  • The Winge-Lindegren Address is a thought-provoking perspective given by a leader in the field of yeast genetics.
  • The Lee Hartwell Lecture is given by a noted researcher in the field who has used yeast in a way that has had an obvious impact on other fields.

Previous awardees are listed on last year’s Yeast Genetics Meeting award site.
The deadline for nominations is Tuesday, August 1, 2017. Nominations should include: name, affiliation, email address, and a one or two sentence overview of why you are proposing the individual. Please send nominations to

Make Some More Room for Lamarck

July 17, 2017

For most people, a move to Tibet or other high altitude places is a real struggle. They suffer the many nasty symptoms of high altitude sickness while they are there.

Some people though, like natives of Tibet or of the Andes, have adapted to the extreme altitudes through natural selection and do just fine. How they adapted is a typical Darwinian story.

Princess Bride, mostly dead

Lamarck’s theories are only mostly dead which means they are slightly alive. from the Brick In the Sky blog (

Those who happened to have the right set of DNA did better than those who didn’t and so had more kids. Over time, the beneficial DNA became more common until the population was able to tolerate the low oxygen of the higher altitudes. (In Tibet, they may have acquired this helpful DNA by having kids with our close relatives the Denisovans.)

Imagine instead that the story went a bit differently. In a Lamarckian twist, let’s say that people who live in low oxygen were more likely to gain the traits needed to do well in this environment, strictly as a result of there not being enough oxygen around. In other words, the environment would make it more likely for the beneficial changes to happen.

Turns out this might have been the way the story went if people were more like yeast. And if dealing with low oxygen environments relied on a gene near a place in the DNA where replication forks often stalled.  And if that the gene was upregulated in low oxygen. 

It is under these conditions that Hull and coworkers found that yeast could preferentially develop the right mutations in an environment-dependent way. Instead of low oxygen though, these authors studied the yeast growing in high levels of copper.

One way that yeast deal with toxic levels of copper is to turn up the CUP1 gene. Or more precisely, turn up their tandem arrays of multiple copies of CUP1.

This last point is important because it hints at how yeast can increase the likelihood of beneficial mutations at CUP1 in the presence of copper. The increased transcription of the CUP1 genes increases the likelihood of a change in the copy number of these genes. Those yeast with increased copy number thrive in their new copper-tainted environment.

Now of course not every gene ends up with an increase in beneficial mutations just because it is induced. No, the gene also seems to have to be near where a DNA replication fork is more likely to stall. It is this combination of high rates of transcription and stalled DNA replication that can lead to changes in gene copy number.

The first thing the authors did was to map out where replication forks tend to stall in the yeast genome. These sites are marked by the presence of S139-phosphorylated histone H2A (γH2a).

Using chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing (ChIP-seq) for γH2a they showed that likely stalling spots were within 1,000 base pairs of around 7% of the genes of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. These genes tend to be expressed at low levels under optimal conditions and higher levels under less ideal growth conditions. One of these genes is CUP1.

It is well known that when yeast are put into a high copper environment, the end result is yeast with more copies of the CUP1 gene. But this could simply represent the few cells that happened to have extra copies that then outgrow their compatriots with fewer copies. Ordinary old Darwinian selection.

What these authors wanted to show is that it is increased transcription that leads to increased copy number and not the selective pressure. They get at this a couple of different ways.

In the first approach, they introduce multiple copies of a Gal-inducible reporter at the CUP1 locus. In this system there is increased transcription in the presence of galactose, but no selection.

They found multiple colonies with changes in the copy number of the reporter gene with galactose and no differences in copy number with glucose. So, transcription matters.


Lamarck was only mostly wrong when it comes to evolution. Occasionally beasts can pass on traits they acquired over their lifetime. From Wikimedia Commons.

The second way they attacked this problem was by killing off any daughter cells to get rid of the problem of selection. In this strategy copy number mutants do not get a chance to outgrow their lower copy number sisters. Only the original mother cells remain.

Any increase in copy number would not be due to run of the mill Darwinian selection. Instead, they would be due to the presence of the factor in the environment the cells need to adapt to. And this is just what these authors saw happen.

They eliminated daughter cells using a mother-enrichment system in which daughter cells are killed in the presence of beta-estradiol. They treated a population of cells with beta-estradiol and then put half in normal media and half in media with 1 mM copper sulfate.

They found about a 9-fold increase in the number of copy number variants (CNV) in the presence of copper (27% CNV events compared to 3%). They did follow up experiments to show that copper was not acting as a mutagen—the copper had to induce transcription to cause the copy number variation. And judging by the bud scars, it looks like the cells divided more in the absence of copper, meaning this 9-fold increase is an underestimate.

So growing in the presence of copper increased mutations in the CUP1 gene that allowed the yeast to grow better in copper. Calling Doctor Lamarck!

We don’t have time to go into the rest of the experiments they did to flesh out their findings. For example, they show that this copy number variation can still happen even when they use tandem arrays that are much shorter than the usual 13 CUP1 copies. And that deletion of the H3K56 acetyltransferase RTT109 completely eliminates the effect of copper on the expansion of CUP1. And so much more! Anyone interested should definitely read the article.

These findings show us another example of Lamarckian selection. The environment itself causes the adaptations needed to prosper and these adaptations can be passed on. Not quite the ancestors of giraffes passing on their stretched necks to the next generation but still pretty cool.

The awesome power of yeast genetics again shows us something new about how life adapts and evolves. #APOYG

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

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